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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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1776
Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards, Book by Peter Stone
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Enrique Brown
The Muny
June 27, 2019

Keith Hines, Adam Heller, Robert Petkoff
Photo: The Muny

The third show of the Muny’s 101st season, and the last before a brief break for 4th of July weekend, is, appropriately enough, the classic musical 1776. That seems like ideal timing for this show whose events lead up to the “original” 4th of July–the one the holiday commemorates. It’s a challenging show to do, considering how “talky” it is for a musical as well as the sheer strength of its book. For the most part, the Muny rises to that challenge. Although there were a few opening night “rough edges” to be smoothed out, this is a well-staged production with an excellent cast and superb, deceptively simple staging.

This musical is 50 years old this year, and it still seems as relevant as ever. It’s a unique show, being as book-focused as it is, and although it’s now often compared to the more recent Hamilton, 1776 is a show that stands on its own merits. In its own way, it set a precedent for a musical about the Founding Fathers that treats them not as saintly figures, but as flawed humans who had to make some serious compromises to achieve their goals. It shows how messy politics can be, highlighting hypocrisy in songs like “Molasses to Rum” as well as the devastating effects of war in the still stunning “Momma, Look Sharp”. Yes, there’s some levity here as well, but there’s also real gravity, and seeing it again, I’m surprised at how well it holds up. The story’s focus is on John Adams (Robert Petkoff), but features several figures, both prominent and not as well-known. Thomas Jefferson (Keith Hines) and Benjamin Franklin (Adam Heller) are key figures, as the bombastic Richard Henry Lee (Ryan Andes), the determined conservative John Dickinson (Ben Davis), the calculating South Carolinian Edward Rutledge (Bobby Conte Thornton), and more. It’s a mostly male cast, with only two women–Abigail Adams (Jenny Powers), who appears onstage in a representation of letters that she and her husband John write to one another; and Martha Jefferson (Ali Ewoldt), who appears briefly to visit her distracted husband and sing the memorable “He Plays the Violin”. Otherwise, there are a lot of men–from the members of the Continental Congress to congressional staff workers like secretary Charles Thomson (Gary Glasgow) and custodian Andrew McNair (Harry Bouvy), as well as a courier (Alex Prakken) who brings a series of ominous dispatches from the unseen General George Washington. Of course, we all know how the events turn out, but the suspense is there anyway, courtesy of book writer Peter Stone who has structured the show remarkably well.

In terms of casting, this production is impressive, with strong, energetic performances from the excellent cast that features a large number of local performers and Muny veterans. Petkoff as Adams strikes just the right notes of authority and belligerent determination, with a strong voice on songs like “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve” and the stirring “Is Anybody There?”  His chemistry with Powers’s excellent, smoothly sung Abigail, as well as with Hines and Heller as main allies Jefferson and Franklin is superb. There are also standout performances from Davis as the determined Dickinson, Heller as a delightfully witty Franklin, and George Abud in the small-ish but profoundly important role of Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson. Glasgow as Thomson, Thornton as Rutledge, Joneal Joplin as Rhode Island’s rum-loving Stephen Hopkins, and Patrick Blindauer as Maryland’s Samuel Chase were also memorable. There are far too many cast members to mention them all, but despite a few inconsistent accents (mostly from those playing Southern characters) and occasional missed lines, this is an especially strong cast that I imagine will only get better as the show continues to run. Also, the show picks up steam about halfway through Act One and then maintains its momentum and energy until the end.

Technically, this production shines in its simplicity. Considering the significant improvements to the Muny’s stage and technical facilities for this season, I was a little concerned going in that there might be a temptation for this production the get too flashy or elaborate, and I’m glad to see that isn’t the case.  In fact, this production has used its new capabilities in a commendable way to present a straightforward staging while still showing off a marvelously detailed, elegant set by Luke Cantarella that makes excellent use of the Muny’s turntable, as well as featuring memorable video design by Greg Emetaz. There are also detailed, colorful period costumes by Alejo Vietti, as well as effective lighting by John Lasiter. The Muny Orchestra led by music director James Moore is also impressive, even though there are occasional moments where the music overpowers the singers.

1776 has been a favorite of mine since I discovered it as a teenager from seeing the film and then reading the script and listening to the Broadway cast album. This is the third production of the show I’ve seen on stage, and for the most part, it’s an excellent rendition. It’s another strong production for the Muny’s historic 101st season.

Cast of 1776
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting 1776 in Forest Park until July 3, 2019

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Kinky Boots
Book by Harvey Fierstein, Music and Lyrics by Cyndi Lauper
Original Broadway Direction and Choreography by Jerry Mitchell
Direction Re-Created by DB Bonds
Choreography Re-Created by Rusty Mowery
The Muny
June 19, 2019

Cast of Kinky Boots
Photo: The Muny

The Muny’s 101st season continues this week with the regional premiere of the Tony-winning musical Kinky Boots. With a score by pop legend Cyndi Lauper and a book by celebrated playwright/actor Harvey Fierstein, this is a bold, energetic and fun show, with a lot of style and heart. And the Muny has brought a great cast and dazzling production values to the stage, to boot.

The story, based on a 2005 British film that was inspired by a true story, tells of a surprising friendship and an unusual business venture. When Charlie Price (Graham Scott Fleming) inherits his family’s shoe factory upon the death of his father, he feels inadequate to live up to his father’s standards and run the failing factory, until he meets drag queen Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), who also has a backstory and a complicated relationship with paternal expectations. The two go into business, with Charlie as manufacturer and Lola as designer, but there are still complications as the two prepare to showcase the new “kinky boots” at a prestigious fashion show in Milan. For Charlie, he has to deal with a legacy of perfectionism as well as his ambitious fiancee, Nicola (Caroline Bowman), who wants him to give up the factory and move to London with her. There’s also Lauren (Taylor Louderman), a factory employee who grows closer to Charlie as they work together. For Lola’s part, there’s the memory of a strict, unaccepting father as well as factory worker Don (Paul Whitty) who continually gives Lola a hard time. It’s a fun show with a catchy score, featuring some poignant ballads like “Not My Father’s Son”  as well as some energetic production numbers such as “Sex Is In the Heel”, “Everybody Say Yeah”, and the uplifting, spirited finale “Raise You Up/Just Be”.

The production here is essentially a re-creation of the Broadway production, with original direction and choreography re-created, and with some key leading roles played by performers who have played the roles before. The cast is excellent, with Ghee as Lola especially strong, both vocally and in sheer presence. Ghee works well with the also excellent Fleming, who puts in a sensitive performance as the conflicted Charlie. Louderman also turns in a winning performance as Lauren, even though the character isn’t given a lot to do at times, but still, Louderman excels especially belting out Lauren’s solo “The History of Wrong Guys” and has good chemistry with Fleming’s Charlie. Other standouts include Whitty as the belligerent Don, and John Scherer in a fun comic turn as Charlie’s assistant at the factory, George. Also worthy of special mention the “Angels” (Callan Bergmann, Ian Fitzgerald, Valton Jackson, Jacob Lacopo, Michael Olaribigbe, Kyle Post, Ricky Schroeder, and Joey Taranto), who back up Lola in her nightclub act, and who exhibit a delightfully flashy, enthusiastic style.

The production values here are simply stunning, utilizing the newly renovated Muny stage with utmost flair. Michael Schweikardt’s set is colorful and versatile, complemented well by Shawn Duan’s video design. The costumes by Gregg Barnes are especially dazzling, suiting the characters from factory workers to drag queens with stylish detail. There’s also excellent lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer and a great Muny Orchestra and music direction by Ryan Fielding Garrett.

Kinky Boots is, above all, a show with energy and heart. It portrays a growing friendship with poignancy and charm, as well as dealing with father/son relationships, romance, acceptance of differences, and more. It’s an upbeat and highly entertaining production from the Muny, and another remarkable success for a so-far stellar 101st season.

Cast of Kinky Boots
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Kinky Boots in Forest Park until June 25, 2019

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