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Newsies, the Musical
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Jack Feldman, Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed and Choreographed by Chris Bailey
The Muny
August 7, 2017

Cast of Newsies
Photo: The Muny

Thinking of shows that seem like they are made for the Muny, I think Newsies would be a prime example. The big, energetic Disney musical is ideally suited for a large outdoor stage like the Muny’s, and there’s a lot of room for the youth ensembles as well. As the closing show for the Muny’s 99th season, Newsies proves to be an excellent fit for the venue, as well as a rousing, well-cast and immensely entertaining production.

The show, based on the Disney film, tells a fictionalized version of a true story–a strike by newsboys in New York City in 1899. Here, the focus is on a group of “newsies” who deliver papers for the New York World newspaper, led by Jack Kelly (Jay Armstrong Johnson), a teenage orphan with artistic talents and dreams of moving west. When World publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Davis Gaines) decides to raise the prices that the newsies pay for the papers they sell, Jack finds himself the leader of an impromptu union, along with his friend Crutchie (Daniel Quadrino), his new friends Davey (Spencer Davis Milford) and Davey’s little brother Les (Gabriel Cytron), and the rest of the neighborhood’s newsies, with hopes of rallying support from those from other papers and throughout the city. The movement is covered by ambitious reporter Katherine Plumber (Tessa Grady), who harbors a secret and finds herself attracted to Jack. As the movement grows, Pulitzer, the show’s obvious villain, grows agitated, and the newsies enlist the help of local entertainer Medda Larkin (Ta’rea Campbell), for whom Jack occasionally works painting backdrops for her theatre. The newsies’ strike becomes front page news, but Pulitzer’s efforts to stop it threaten to run Jack out of town and make conditions even worse for the newsies.

I’ve seen this show before, twice, on tour, first in Chicago and then here in St. Louis. I enjoyed both of those productions, but I think this production works even better not only because of its excellent cast, but because of the unique staging opportunities the Muny affords. The Muny Kids and Teens, for instance, are ideally suited for a show like this, to fill out the cast in a way that doesn’t seem manufactured or forced in the least. The direction and choreography by Chris Bailey is in a similar vein to the touring show, but the big Muny stage lends a great advantage for this show full of energetic leaping, spinning, and tapping.  Michael Schweikardt’s set also works well, with movable set pieces in the steel-beam platform style of the tour, but allowing for more flexibility of movement for the production and its large cast. There’s also excellent lighting by John Lasiter, striking video design by Nathan W. Scheuer, and colorful period costumes by Leon Dobkowski to help complete the overall look and atmosphere of the production.

The cast here is simply superb.  Johnson, with his strong voice and amiable stage presence, makes an ideal Jack Kelly. His scenes with his fellow newsies and with Grady’s terrific, spunky Katherine are highlights of this production. There’s also great work from Milford as Davey, young Cytron as Les, Campbell as Medda, and all of the newsies as well. I’ve always thought Pulitzer has been written as something of a cartoon villain in this show, but Gaines does an excellent job with the role as it’s presented. There’s a first-rate ensemble as well, including the Muny’s Youth Ensemble, helping to populate the Muny stage and contribute the energetic, tuneful production numbers.

Newsies is a fun show, with a big, enthusiastic cast. And at the Muny, it’s bigger, bolder, and better than ever. It’s been a great season at the Muny, and this show closes it out with style.

Cast of Newsies
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Newsies in Forest Park until August 13, 2017.

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A Chorus Line
Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Direction and Choreography by Denis Jones
The Muny
July 29, 2017

Cast of A Chorus Line
Photo: The Muny

A Chorus Line is a legendary show. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winner that ran on Broadway for 15 years, which was a record for a long time. It’s somewhat odd to think that such a “small” show had achieved such big success, but it shouldn’t be that strange considering its human drama, memorable score, and timeless appeal, especially for anyone who has at any time been involved in theatre and especially dance. The Muny is almost too big a venue to put on this show, really, although this latest production, the show has been “opened up” in a few ways that, for the most part, are successful and add to the classic appeal of this show.

The premise is fairly simple. A group of dancers are trying out for roles in the chorus of an unnamed Broadway show, and the director, Zach (Ivan Hernandez) interviews them to find out more about their backgrounds, what dance means to them, and why they want this job. Most of the dancers are veteran performers for whom this is a “make or break” type of situation career-wise, although there are a few younger dancers in the group who are looking for their big breaks. Even though the roles are cast near the end of the show, the real drama here is not as much about who gets the job and who doesn’t. What’s most interesting is who these people are, and how they got to where they are now. There’s a small semi-romantic subplot involving one of the dancers, Cassie (Bianca Marroquin), but the real drama, and the real romance, is about the stage life itself. The show’s most famous number, “What I Did For Love”, for instance, isn’t about a romantic relationship, but rather about the dancers’ relationship with their art. This show is, with all its drama and occasional critiques of the business, still essentially a love letter to the life of a performer. It has a St. Louis connection as well, as a few of the dancers involved in the original talk sessions that led to the development of the show were from here, and the few references to St. Louis in the show are met with enthusiastic applause from the audience.

The show here at the Muny has been modified slightly to fit the enormous Muny stage and to include the Muny’s youth ensembles, with varying degrees of effectiveness. For the most part, the additional ensemble members in some scenes do succeed in helping the show fill out its space, although sometimes the inclusion of the kids’ ensemble seems unnecessary. For instance, it’s interesting to see the dancers tell the stories of their childhood experiences aided by the addition of a child performer as a younger version of the older actor, but this works better in some situations (“I Can Do That”) than in others (“At the Ballet”). There are other ways the show is opened up, as well, such as through the use of video projections designed by Nathan W. Scheuer, which are especially effective in Cassie’s (Bianca Marroquin) featured number, “The Music and the Mirror”.   The set, by Paige Hathaway, is fairly simple, and that works for this show, and Andrea Lauer’s costumes are appropriate for the characters and the mid-1970s setting of the piece. There’s also extremely effective lighting by Rob Denton that helps maintain the overall atmosphere of this production.

The cast here is excellent, and each gets a moment to shine, although some more than others. The entire company is strong, excelling in singing and acting as well as dancing. The standouts for me are Ian Paget as Paul, whose “showcase moment” is a heartbreaking monologue near the halfway point of the show (there is no intermission), as well as Holly Ann Butler as the tough-talking Sheila. There’s also Madison Johnson as the somewhat flight Kristine, who has a problem with singing, highlighted in the song “Sing”, a clever duet with her husband and fellow auditioner Al (Rick Faugno). Other standouts include Marroquin as the determined Cassie, Sean Harrison Jones as the athletic dancer Mike, Evan Kinnane as the socially awkward Bobby, and especially Hannah Florence as the dedicated dancer Diana, who shines leading the cast in “Nothing” and “What I Did For Love”. The whole ensemble is strong, though, displaying energy and style in the production numbers and solos alike, and performing director Denis Jones’s dynamic choreography well, especially in the show’s iconic closing number “One”.

A Chorus Line is, to use a somewhat overused term, iconic. it’s one of those shows that everyone who loves musicals should see at least once, and even though the show has been modified slightly to fit the huge stage and play to the enormous audience at the Muny, its essence is preserved. It’s a celebration of music, dance, and humanity, well represented in this fine production.

Cast of A Chorus Line
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting A Chorus Line in Forest Park until August 4, 2017.

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The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Lyrics and Music by Meredith Willson, Book and Additional Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
Based on the Original Book by Richard Morris
Musical Adaptation by Michael Rafter
Direction and Choreography by Kathleen Marshall
The Muny
July 21, 2017

Beth Malone (Center) and Cast
Photo: The Muny

I wasn’t around when The Unsinkable Molly Brown originally debuted on Broadway in 1960.  In fact, I wouldn’t be born until years later. Still, sitting at the Muny on a hot, humid Friday night, I felt like I was witnessing something I never thought I’d be able to see–the performance of a new, classic musical from the Golden Age of Broadway. This new, highly revised version of the show has been several years in the making, and several of the old familiar songs are still there, but still, with this production at the Muny, there’s this unmistakable air of something new, and it’s wonderful.

The only version of this show I had seen before was a high school production many years ago, but it doesn’t really matter what version of this show you may have seen, because this one is different. It’s a total re-imagining of the story, still focusing on Margaret “Molly” Brown (Beth Malone), but with new songs from composer Meredith Willson’s catalog of lesser-known works. There’s an entirely new book, as well, with new characters and a story that tracks more with Brown’s real life, even though for show purposes she’s still “Molly” here–apparently, she went by “Maggie” in real life. Anyway, when we first see Malone’s plucky, feisty Molly, she’s an uneducated but highly ambitious young woman newly arrived in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado, although she really wants to be in Denver, pursuing her dream of becoming rich and influential. Still, a series of events keeps her in Leadville, where she gets to know a group of miners including the stubborn and persistent J.J. Brown (Marc Kudisch), who eventually becomes her husband. She also meets Julia (Whitney Bashor), the young English widow of a miner who was killed in an accident, as well as the miner’s three friends Erich (David Abeles), Arthur (Paolo Montalban), and Vincenzo (Justin Guarini).  The story then follows Molly as she helps J.J. make his fortune in gold mining, and as she becomes an active member of Denver society and an activist for several causes. Of course, the story of her surviving the sinking of the Titanic is also here, but so much else is different. It’s a whole new show, completely in the spirit of an “old” show.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the “original” Molly Brown, I’m convinced anyone seeing it now would think this was the original. The beauty of using “new” songs written by Meredith Willson rather than having a new composer try to write in his style is that the songs–even with modified lyrics–fit right into the show, in terms of tone and style, and they sound completely authentic. The new book makes a lot more sense than the old book, as well, in that while it still contains fictional elements, it’s more in tune with the real life of the woman on whom it is based. With this production, we get to see Molly as a philanthropist and activist, as she was in real life, and the tensions between her and her husband are given more of a realistic basis. Also, the new characters fit into the story well, and it doesn’t seem revisionist at all. It seems like the show should always have been like this, and in overall atmosphere it’s very much a classic musical. This is a remarkable feat for all involved.

Also remarkable is the excellent cast that has been assembled here, and especially the casting of the title role. The term “star quality” gets thrown around a lot in theatre, but I can’t think of a better term to use when describing Beth Malone’s performance. The minute she steps on the vast Muny stage, she owns it. This is a story that spans more than 20 years of Molly’s life, and Malone convincingly navigates the character’s growth over the years, from young, uneducated and spunky, to older, wiser, more educated and still spunky. And Malone can sing and dance with energy and strength, as well. Her combative but affectionate chemistry with the excellent Kudisch as J. J. is also a highlight of this production. There’s a wonderful supporting cast as well, led by the smooth-voiced Guarini, Abeles, and Montalban as Molly’s and J.J.’s miner friends, and by Bashor as the earnest, also strong Julia. There’s a great, energetic ensemble, as well, and the miners’ ensemble at the beginning is especially notable, with powerful voices and athletic dancing. Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s choreography is dynamic and memorable as well, and the ensemble performs it with verve and gusto.

Molly’s world, from Leadville to Denver, to Europe and beyond, is well-realized in the production design here, with Derek McLane and Paul Tate dePoo III’s bold and colorful set design providing an excellent backdrop to the story. There are also bright and detailed costumes by Paul Tazewell and believable wigs by Leah J. Loukas. Rob Denton’s lighting, and Nathan W. Scheuer’s video designs also contribute to the overall look and atmosphere of this rousing, energetic production. There were a few minor sound issues on opening night, but I expect these will be dealt with as the show continues to run. The musical arrangements by music director Michael Rafter–well played by the superb Muny Orchestra–are also excellent, contributing to the overall classic Broadway vibe of this production.

Possibly because of the weather this week, they could have called this Molly Brown “Unmeltable”. Still, despite the extreme heat in St. Louis this summer, if the Muny’s latest production  of The Unsinkable Molly Brown can be defined by one word, that word has to be “unmissable”.  With a strong ensemble and truly stellar lead performance, this is a spectacular show that is worth sitting through the weather to see.

Beth Malone, Marc Kudisch
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Unsinkable Molly Brown in Forest Park until July 27, 2017.

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A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum
Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Gary Griffin
Choreographed by Alex Sanchez
The Muny
July 5, 2017

John Tartaglia, Mark Linn-Baker, Jeffrey Shecter
Photo: The Muny

 

According to the notes in the program, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in its original pre-Broadway run was saved by a last-minute song change, as composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim added “Comedy Tonight” as the opening number and the show became a hit. Well, another last-minute change has occurred for the Muny’s latest production, as billed star Peter Scolari unfortunately had to drop out due to illness, and Jeffrey Schecter, who winningly portrayed Scuttle in the Muny’s last production, The Little Mermaid, was called in four days before opening to take over the role of Pseudolus. Executive producer Mike Isaacason made an appearance before the opening night show to announce the change, and to let the audience know that Schecter would be performing with script in hand.  Still, despite the short rehearsal time, Schecter’s performance is a resounding success, anchoring a production that’s full of wit, energy, and old-school humor.

Based on several comedies by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, Forum is framed as a theatrical repertory performance, introduced by Prologus (Schecter), who will play Pseudolus in tonight’s comedy. Pseudolus is a slave in the house of the wealthy Roman Senex (Mark Linn-Baker), who is about to go out of town with his overbearing wife Domina (E. Faye Butler), leaving his son Hero (Marrick Smith) in the charge of Pseudolus and chief slave Hysterium (John Tartaglia), who aren’t yet aware that the wide-eyed young man has fallen in love with a young woman he’s only seen but never met. This young woman is Philia (Ali Ewoldt), a new arrival at the house of Lycus (Jason Kravits), who keeps courtesans and has sold the virginal Philia sight unseen to a vainglorious military captain, Miles Gloriosus (Nathaniel Hackmann), who is due to arrive any day to claim his bride. There’s also Erronius (Whit Reichert), another neighbor, who is still searching for his long lost children, who were abducted years previously by pirates. Meanwhile Pseudolus seeks to obtain his freedom by helping Hero, but as this is a farce, nothing runs smoothly, with many comic mishaps and misunderstandings happening along the way to the show’s promised “happy ending”.

This is a funny, funny show, with a lot of wild, bawdy, and slapstick humor, and yes, some dated elements and some predictable plot points, but it’s a lot of fun, especially here with this energetic, enthusiastic cast. Schecter has had a difficult job filling in at the last minute in such a prominent role, but he shines, with excellent comic timing, smooth dance skills, and winning stage presence. He even manages to incorporate the script into a few jokes and visual gags. He also manages great chemistry with his co-stars with such little rehearsal time, which is remarkable, and his song-and-dance number “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” with the equally excellent Tartaglia, Linn-Baker, and Kravits is a comic highlight.  Tartaglia especially seems to be reveling in his part as the excitable Hysterium, giving a stand-out performance. There are also strong turns from Hackmann as the haughty, full-of-himself Miles Gloriosus, who has come to claim his bride but would probably marry himself if he could; and by Reichert as the determined, goofily earnest Erronius. As the thwarted young lovers Hero and Philia, Smith and Ewoldt are excellent, as well, with Ewoldt especially funny and in great voice. There’s also a trio of Proteans–Marcus Choi, Justin Keyes, and Tommy Scrivens–who play a number of roles throughout the production and bring a lot of laughs in the process; and six elaborately costumed courtesans (Khori Michelle Petinaud, Katelyn Prominksi, Emily Hsu, Lainie Sakakura, Justina Aveyard, and Molly Callinan) who also contribute to the humor and energy of the show.

This isn’t as big a cast as is usually seen at the Muny, but they fill the stage well, as does the colorful, evocative set by Tim Mackabee, representing the three prominent houses and providing an ideal setting for the action. There are also vibrant costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, wigs by John Metzner, and lighting by Rob Denton,  contributing to the Roman atmosphere as well as the slapstick tone. The staging is brisk and sprightly, with some energetic choreography by Alex Sanchez adding to the overall madcap atmosphere.

This is a funny show. The title doesn’t lie. It’s a kind of show that brings in a lot of old-style comic elements, with some memorable Sondheim songs and a great cast. Kudos again to Jeffrey Schecter for giving such a strong, assured performance on such short notice. I’m sure his portrayal will get even stronger as the show goes on. It’s another excellent production from the Muny.

Cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in Forest Park until July 11, 2017.

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The Little Mermaid
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater
Book by Doug Wright
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Waldren
The Muny
June 20, 2017

Kevin Zak, Will Porter, Emma Degerstedt, Emily Skinner
Photo: The Muny

This isn’t opening week at the Muny, but it is for me. Unfortunately, I was out of town and unable to attend the first performance of the 2017 Muny season, Jesus Christ Supertar. That is especially sad because I heard it was an excellent production. Still, for me, the first Muny show of the year is the season’s second production, Disney’s The Little Mermaid. This is the second production of this adaptation of the popular animated film that the Muny has done, and I remember enjoying the last one but that was in the “old Muny” era so I’m not sure if a direct comparison is really possible. What I can say is that this version is visually stunning and extremely well cast, making for an entertaining evening of theatre in Forest Park.

The story is familiar to anyone who has seen the film, although it has been altered slightly for the stage, and additional songs have been added. The mermaid of the title is Ariel (Emma Degerstedt), the golden-voiced youngest daughter of King Triton (Jerry Dixon), who rules the undersea realm but has trouble understanding his youngest child. Ariel herself is obsessed with the world of humans, often journeying to the surface of the sea and collecting trinkets and keepsakes of the world beyond the ocean. She eventually encounters the human Prince Eric (Jason Gotay), who isn’t happy with his life as a prince and longs for a life at sea. When Eric is shipwrecked and Ariel saves him, Ariel’s fascination with humans turns into love for this particular human, and that’s where the Sea Witch Ursula (Emily Skinner) becomes involved. Striking a deal with Ursula that will give her legs in exchange for her voice, Ariel must get Eric to kiss her within three days or else she forfeits her soul to Ursula. With the help of her friends Sebastian the crab (James T. Lane), Flounder the fish (Spencer Jones), and Scuttle the seagull (Jeffrey Schecter), Ariel sets out to achieve her goal while Eric’s guardian Grimsby (Richard B. Watson) suggests a singing contest to find the girl with the beautiful voice who rescued Eric, and whom the prince–who is expected to marry by his 21st birthday–is determined to find and hopes to wed.

The structure of the show is similar to the film, but has been expanded for the stage, and some plot details altered to better fit the stage format. For the most part, this story works, although I still question the inclusion of the song “Les Poissons”, since it makes little sense on stage even though Frank Vlastnik as Chef Louis performs it well and with lots of energy. The ending, especially Ursula’s fate, also isn’t as dramatically satisfying as the film version, although I do like that the development of Ariel and Eric’s relationship is given a little more focus. Still, this is a vibrant, energetic show with a lot of great songs including (and especially) the film classics like “Part of Your World”, “Under the Sea”, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, and “Kiss the Girl”, and the Muny has brought the show to life with style and stunning visual effects, with a colorful, versatile set by Michael Schweikart, excellent costumes by Robin L. McGee such as the truly magnificent Ursula costume for Skinner and the ensemble members who play her tentacles. There’s also excellent lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer, video design by Matthew Young that augments the scenery well, and some truly clever puppets designed by Puppet Kitchen Productions, inc. The undersea world, as well as the dry-land world of Eric’s court, are well represented here on the giant Muny stage.

There’s a great cast here, as well, led by Degerstedt’s determined, wide-eyed, clear-voiced performance as Ariel. Her chemistry with Gotay’s smooth-voiced, earnest Prince Eric is strong, and their scenes together are a highlight of this production. Skinner makes the most of the villain role as Ursula, reveling in her evil schemes and commanding the stage on her featured number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. She’s supported well by the gleefully oily characterizations of her henchmen, electric eels Flotsam and Jetsam, by Kevin Zak and Will Porter. There are also strong performances from the young Jones as Ariel’s devoted friend Flounder, and Schecter as the wisecracking, overconfident seagull Scutttle, who leads a group of other gulls in a memorable tap-dance number, “Positoovity”. Lane, as Ariel’s friend and reluctant guardian Sebastian, has some excellent moments leading the iconic songs “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”. The leads are supported by a strong, vividly outfitted ensemble playing everything from an array of undersea creatures to palace guards and princesses.

The Little Mermaid is not the best of Disney’s stage musicals, but it is fun and it has it’s memorable moments.  At the Muny this time around, it’s especially striking in a visual sense. This production is essentially what audiences would want it to be–a big, bright, energetic musical that fills the Muny stage well and entertains viewers of all ages.

Emma Degerstedt, Jason Gotay
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Disney’s The Little Mermaid in Forest Park until June 29, 2017.

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Aida
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang
Directed by Matt Lenz
Choreographed by Jon Rua
August 8, 2016

Cast of Aida Photo: The Muny

Cast of Aida
Photo: The Muny

It’s a musical based on the story from a well-known opera, with music by one of pop music’s most recognizable names. It’s set in ancient Egypt, but with a host of modern musical styles from pop to rock to gospel and more. The show is Aida, and it’s the last–and best–production of the Muny’s 98th season in Forest Park.

Aida is named after its central character, a Nubian princess (Michelle Williams) who has been captured along with others from her country as a result of a recent battle with Egypt. The Nubian captives are taken as slaves by the Egyptians, and Aida keeps her identity as a princess secret. The Egyptian captain, Radames (Zak Resnick), decides to present Aida as a “gift” to be a handmaiden for his betrothed, Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris (Taylor Louderman), although he and Aida are obviously attracted to one another. As their attraction grows, political intrigue also grows, as Radames’s unscrupulous father Zoser (Patrick Cassidy) schemes to get his son into power, against Radames’s own wishes. As the story continues, Aida and Radames are increasingly drawn to one another as Aida also develops something of a friendship with Amneris and also confides her secret to her countryman, Mereb (Wonza Johnson), another captured palace servant who wants to reveal her secret to his people. The warlike nature of society, the injustice of slavery and imperialism, roles and expectations of women, social pressures of marriage for political gain vs. love, and other issues are key elements in this story. It’s a love story ultimately, but not only about romantic love. It’s also about love for family, friends, country, and the desire for freedom to live and love as one chooses. The excellent songs by Elton John and Tim Rice portrays these themes with style and a variety of musical styles, ranging from pop to rock to gospel.

The cast here features several performers who have been involved in productions of Aida on Broadway, on tour, and in the last Muny production in 2006, including the excellent Michelle Williams, who previously played the title role on Broadway. She’s in excellent voice here and displays great stage presence and chemistry with Resnick’s conflicted Radames. Their duets are a highlight of the production. Taylor Louderman is also impressive as the initially superficial-seeming Amneris, whose ode to fashion “My Strongest Suit” is a musical and comedic tour de force. Louderman also does a great job portraying her character’s conflict and growth as a character. Also excellent is Johnson as Mereb, with a strong voice and a strong sense of conviction and loyalty to Aida and his people. There’s also a great performance by the Muny’s veteran Ken Page, reprising his 2006 role as Aida’s father, Nubian king Amonasro. Patrick Cassidy, who has previously played Radames on Broadway and on tour, does a fine job here in the somewhat cartoonish role of Zoser, although the vocals seem to be challenging for his range at times. The show also boasts a top notch ensemble, shining vocally and physically in stunning production numbers such as the Act 1 finale, “The Gods Love Nubia”. It’s a wonderful cast all around, telling the story with energy, emotion, and superb skill.

Technically, this production is also a stunner. The expansive, versatile set by Tim Mackabee evokes the Egyptian setting well, with pyramids, desert backdrops, and regal palace settings. Robin L. McGee’s costumes are superbly detailed, as well, suiting the characters well and evoking the time and place. There’s also fantastic lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer and video design by Matthew Young, transporting the audience to a somewhat stylized version of ancient Egypt.

Overall, this has been a good year for the Muny.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see all of the shows this year, missing Fiddler On the Roof because I was out of town that week. Still, the Muny is in excellent hands with Executive Producer and Artistic Director Mike Isaacson, and this production of Aida closes out the season in spectacular fashion. It’s a poignant, musically impressive, visually stunning, superbly acted production. I hadn’t seen this musical, or the opera on which it is based, before, and I’m glad this first-rate production was my introduction to this story.

Taylor Louderman, Michelle Williams, Zak Resnick Photo: The Muny

Taylor Louderman, Michelle Williams, Zak Resnick
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Aida in Forest Park until August 14, 2016.

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Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson
Directed by Dan Knechtges
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman
The Muny
July 21, 2016

Ann Harada, Julia Murney, Jenny Powers Photo: The Muny

Ann Harada, Julia Murney, Jenny Powers
Photo: The Muny

It’s a good week for the Muny to be staging Mamma Mia! The show, set on a Greek island, is a quintessential summer show, and I’m sure the cast members appreciate being able to dress for the warm weather. This is the first production of this popular show at the Muny, and with its excellent production values, great cast, fun if slightly silly story and lots and lots of ABBA music, it’s a rousing success.

Not being the biggest fan of the whole concept of the “jukebox musical”, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Mamma Mia! the first time I saw it on stage. The movie is also a lot of fun, but I prefer the stage show and its whole sunny atmosphere, and the way it incorporates the songs of popular Swedish disco supergroup ABBA into the story. It’s not a particularly deep or profound show, but it’s a lot of fun, focusing on Donna Sheridan (Julia Murney)–the former lead singer of a disco trio–and her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Brittany Zeinstra). When the soon-to-be-married Sophie finds her mother’s diary and discovers that she has three possible fathers, she invites all three to the wedding without telling Donna, which causes all sorts of drama. The “dads” are three very different men–American architect Sam (Justin Guarini), who may still be in love with Donna; Australian adventurer and writer Bill (Mike McGowan), who enjoys his carefree single life; and slightly stuffy Englishman and former “headbanger” Harry (Ben Nordstrom). Donna’s friends and former bandmates Tanya (Jenny Powers) and Rosie (Ann Harada) also arrive for the wedding and get involved in the various shenanigans that ensue. It’s something of a goofy plot that doesn’t bear a lot of scrutiny if you examine it closely, but that doesn’t really matter in this case,  because it’s such a fun show that it’s easy to suspend disbelief for a little while.

The highlights of this show include the ABBA songs and the great cast. In terms of the music, all the well-known hits are here, including “Dancing Queen”, “Take a Chance On Me”, “The Winner Takes it All”, the title song and more. As for the performers, the cast is extremely well-chosen, led by the dynamic, sympathetic, big-voiced performance of Murney as Donna, and by the excellent Zeinstra as the persistent, optimistic Sophie. Powers and Harada provide excellent comic support as Tanya and Rosie, as well. Harada’s duet with McGowan on “Take a Chance On Me” is a hilarious moment. The men are well-cast, as well,  with Guarini in excellent voice as Sam, Nordstrom charming as Harry, and McGowan energetic and amiable as Bill. Jason Gotay as Sophie’s fiance Sky, and Alexander Aguilar and Wonza Johnson as his buddies Pepper and Eddie, also give good performances. The leads are backed by a strong ensemble, as well, which is great considering all the big, energetic production numbers there are in this show.

 The sunny atmosphere is reflected in the excellent unit set, designed by Tim Mackabee, that represents the Taverna that Donna operates. The Muny’s turntable is also put to good use. The costumes by Leon Dobkowski set the mood well, with colorful summer outfits,  swim suits, and  flashy disco outfits for Donna and the Dynamos. There’s also great use of video, designed by Greg Emetaz, that is incorporated well into the delivery of some of the songs, particularly Harry and Donna’s duet, “Our Last Summer”.  There’s also great lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer that helps to maintain the festive mood of the show.

I’m not sure how many times I can use the word “fun” in one review, but that’s really the best word to describe this show. Mamma Mia! isn’t a deep, thought-provoking type of show, although there are some truly poignant moments, such as the use of the song “Slipping Through My Fingers” as Donna is helping Sophie prepare for the wedding. Still, this show is about energy, style, ABBA music, and lots of fun, and this production at the Muny delivers all that, from the hopeful beginning to the memorable “mega-mix”style curtain call. The only small criticism I have is that sometimes the Muny’s enormous stage seems too big for this show in its more serious moments, although the music and energy eventually makes the show seem big enough. If you’re looking for a funny, summery, tuneful show with loads of hit songs, Mamma Mia! surely won’t disappoint.

Cast of Mamma Mia! Photo: The Muny

Cast of Mamma Mia!
Photo: The Muny

Mamma Mia! is being presented by the Muny in Forest Park until July 28, 2016.

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