By Lynn Venhaus
Sometimes, we see magic happen under the stars in Forest Park. This summer, we saw a different kind of Muny Magic – but enchanted evenings nonetheless.
It took a global pandemic for the Muny to achieve its greatest magic trick ever – they transformed our isolation into a community through a live variety special.
And they did it with such hard work and passion. Using modern technology, incredibly creative professionals and tip-top talent from coast to coast, it was a huge undertaking, which was obvious to anyone who tuned in for even a fraction of an episode.
For the fifth Summer Variety Hour Live! on Monday, Aug. 17, the Muny supersized the presentation and it was a splashy grand finale, tugging on our heartstrings in a big but intimate way. So much genuine emotion in new works, in memories and archival footage that reminded us how special our outdoor theatre is, the largest and oldest one in the country.
Seeing Muny mainstay Beth Leavel perform her showstopper “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy” (2018) with the view from the wings! My heart was bursting. Tari Kelly leading the ebullient “Forget About the Boy” in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (2012) and one of the all-time great musical theater numbers, ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from last year’s “Guys and Dolls,” with the surprise appearance by Kennedy Holmes to hit those high notes. I was grinning ear to ear. The Mission: Feel-Good was on!
For five episodes, the Muny reinvigorated its treasure trove of tradition, 102 years strong, to provide virtual entertainment that filled the void of a cancelled season. The collaborative spirit on display was inspiring.
Let’s face it, the summer has been dismal, especially with rising coronavirus cases in our bi-state region. More things shut down and were postponed in a never-ending stream of disappointments in 2020. But as a gift to “the Muny family,” the management and creative teams conceived a way to connect us. We all felt it, whether tuning in on Monday or catching the rerun on Thursday from July 20 to Aug. 17 as the evening twilight faded.
For a brief shining moment, it seemed like old times. The 8:15 p.m. start was a constant to look forward to in an uncertain year during an unprecedented public health crisis. With Executive Producer and Artistic Director Mike Isaacson’s bold and unique concept, and his ability to attract the talent he did, each episode was a captivating mix of tempo and tone, under the direction of multi-talented Michael Baxter.
What an emotional palette we experienced, touching on why we love the Muny, from veteran performer Colby Dezelick’s touching original song, “I Will Be Your Home” — with a behind-the-scenes video love letter dedicated to his Muny family, to sweet Jenny Powers describing her feelings about flying above the audience as Mary Poppins in 2013, and how the staff took such good care of her. Straight to the heart.
And while seeing up-and-coming talent do what they do best is always enjoyable, feeling their sheer joy in performing is blissful. Watching St. Louis native and Broadway performer Richard Riaz Yoder use his exceptional talents to dance “Broadway Melody” using the Muny as his canvas – tap-dancing for a time in sneakers! – was breathtaking.
So was jubilant Jack Sippel’s choreographed dance number, the cheery “You Can’t Stop the Beat!” from “Hairspray,” which was performed by 19 Muny alums and sung by Nasia Thomas, Muny vet and Broadway performer in “Beautiful,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and soon, the revival of “Caroline, or Change.”
In the 2017 production of “A Chorus Line,”
director-choreographer Denis Jones used young versions of the dancers in
certain scenes, to emphasize their dreams and drive. On Monday, they showed the
wistful “At the Ballet” number, which was performed by Holly Ann Butler as
Sheila, Bronwyn Tarboton as Maggie and Caley Crawford as Bebe, with little
ballerinas in view.
As lump-in-the-throat as that song is, nothing can match the show’s curtain call for its spectacular finish, and they recreated it for The Muny Centennial Gala, complete with fireworks. Such a thrilling moment to revisit.
The energy, enthusiasm and talent of the Muny Teens and Kids each episode was another heart-tugger. Because six teens were graduating, they had a special senior sendoff: Michael Harp, Cate Phillips, Michael Lee Jr., Fiona Scott, Jack Deters and Caitlin Chau sang “Our Time” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” I have seen these kids grow up. Misty eyes.
“Worlds to change, and worlds to win Our turn, coming through.”
The Muny Kids’ adorable and confident youngsters mashed up “Come Alive” from the film “The Greatest Showman,” with songs by Oscar and Tony winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, with “A Little More Homework” from Jason Robert Brown’s “13.”
For comic relief, there was the fun “Munywood Squares” game show, good sports all, and jolly John Tartaglia reprising his Murray the Muny Raccoon schtick, making Isaacson laugh.
Isaacson, who has been the visionary executive producer and artistic director since the 2012 season, named to the post in 2010, cares deeply about the Muny’s place in historic context and local lore, and with his Broadway experience, he’s able to give us quality casts, teams and a really dedicated staff.
Clearly wearing his heart on his sleeve as this summer’s host, he gave us something that we could enjoy on many levels and for many reasons. Isaacson has multiple Tony Awards and 24 Broadway shows and national tours to his credit. He makes things happen in a way that elevates the Muny in stature, boosting our civic pride, but also gains respect in the larger theatrical world. His reverence for the art form is obvious, and he has shown us, time and again, the possibilities of what the Muny can accomplish.
That connection that he spoke of, all the people who came together without hesitation, all the selfless devotion, a renewed sense of purpose – it felt very real and elicited a teary farewell.
I think, like “Field of Dreams,” Forest Park and the Muny are mystical places. After all, musical theatre is a constant in our lives, like baseball. We want to believe that in a time of everything turned upside down, of norms being shattered, that there exists a place we feel safe, happy, loved. That sharing theater and music brings us together like no other art form.
So, the Muny Variety Hour gave us the opportunity to be in the company of performers who love the Muny like it is a family, a home. That theme was repeated over and over. And that’s what we are craving in these anxious times.
And in Colby’s song: “When it’s dark, I’ll be the light.”
Another almost spiritual song was the centuries-old tune and Muny season-ender tradition “Auld Lang Syne,” sung by Beth Malone, who accompanied herself on acoustic guitar. Beautiful and bittersweet.
The ties that bind us, recalling happy golden days of yore. “Meet Me in St. Louis” appeared again in the line-up – of course. Yes, it’s schmaltzy, but its inclusion of the 1904 World’s Fair, which has impacted our lives and region ever since those seven months, and the work preceding it, make it a nostalgic chestnut.
Married couple and Muny performers Erin Dilly and Stephen R. Buntrock sang a lovely duet, “You and I,” from their home. They appeared as Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the 2018 production, the Centennial season finale.
Maggie Kuntz, a Muny vet and two-time winner of the Best Actress Award from the St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards, sang the iconic “The Trolley Song” live from under the Culver Pavilion with polish and panache.
And then in the sentimental sweet spot, they played “The Skinker’s Swamp” picnic scene featuring Emily Walton as Esther and Dan DeLuca as John Truitt. The video projection was The Palace of Fine Arts, now the St. Louis Art Museum, under construction in a muddy field.
How many times have we been in the shadow of our treasured landmarks?
The world was watching when the Louisiana Purchase Exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. expansion under Thomas Jefferson. More than 60 countries and 43 states participated from April 30 to Dec. 1 in Forest Park and nearby locations.
So, the Muny and Forest Park remain crown jewels that we cherish.
And the Summer Variety Hour Live! reinforced our past, present and future. I’ll meet you at the Muny next summer. Looking forward to greeting the Muny family once more. “Through the years, we’ll always be together, if the fates allow.”
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.