The best produced show of the Muny’s 103rd season, “Chicago” capped off the welcome return to tradition in Forest Park this summer with a sultry and sleek music-and-dance showcase.
Everything about the production was on point – from the crisp staging by director Denis Jones and his snappy choreography to the jazzy brass beats from the swinging orchestra conducted by music director Charlie Alterman.
And this production blazes with star power. You will remember the names of the lead trio: Sarah Bowden (Roxie Hart), J. Harrison Ghee (Velma Kelly) and James T. Lane (Billy Flynn).
With snazzy music by John Kander and barbed lyrics by Fred Ebb, patterned after old-timey vaudeville numbers, and a saucy original book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, the story is a sardonic take on fame and the justice system set during the freewheeling Jazz Age.
It is based on a 1926 play by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about actual criminals she covered for a newspaper in Chicago. This current script adaptation is by David Thompson, who worked with Kander and Ebb on the musicals “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Steel Pier.”
Jones’ clever concept was to set the show as an entertaining spectacle at a speakeasy, with café tables around a perimeter so it’s watched by not only the Muny audience but also by performers on stage. He did a similar staging, but not an exact replica, for the 2012 Muny version. That point of view works brilliantly.
Scenic designer Tim Mackabee gave it a striking look while the lighting design by Rob Denton added to the stylized atmosphere and the stellar video design by Shawn Duan complemented the experience perfectly.
Drenched in cynicism, “Chicago” satirizes corruption and is a show-bizzy spin on tawdry headline-grabbing trial that marked the Prohibition Era — but are also timely today. Merry murderers Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly attempt to seize the spotlight and become celebrities.
Perhaps when the musical debuted in 1975, it was ahead of its time, for contemporary audiences didn’t find it relatable. The week after the Broadway show closed after 936 performances in the summer of 1977, it transferred to the Muny. Starring Jerry Orbach and Ann Reinking, it was not well-received (I was there).
The mostly unsympathetic characters take part in a three-ring circus that’s part illusion and part rhapsody in sleaze. Its relevance has only grown over the years, especially in the digital age of social media.
A rebirth after a robust 1996 Tony Award-winning revival received universal acclaim and broke records as the longest-running musical revival and the longest running American musical in history, second only to “The Phantom of the Opera” on the all-inclusive list (it surpassed “Cats” on Nov. 23, 2014, with its 7,486th performance).
Because the 24-hour news cycle has helped fuel an obsessive celebrity culture and the emergence of reality television has made stars out of unsavory housewives, wealthy influencers like the Kardashians and self-absorbed narcissists, now society has caught up with “Chicago’s” place in pop culture history.
It took me awhile to warm up to the musical, but after watching a few high-profile celebrity trials, you see the parallels. And those songs from the team that gave us the insightful “Cabaret” get better every time you hear them.
A movie adaptation in 2002 garnered an Academy Award for Best Picture, earning six total, including Best Supporting Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma, which also helped its acceptance. It was the first musical since “Oliver!” in 1968 to win the top award.
Cut to Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson’s first season at The Muny in 2012, and “Chicago” was second in the line-up following Fox Theatricals’ Tony winner “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” He said it had been the most requested show on the annual survey for several years.
It’s back, for just the third time, 10 years later, with Jones, now a two-time Tony Award nominee for choreography on “Tootsie” in 2019 and “Holiday Inn” in 2017, raising the bar once again.
He has put his stamp on of two of the Muny’s best shows during the past decade, “42nd Street” in 2016 (Jones, St. Louis Theater Circle Award) and “A Chorus Line” in 2017, and now with another fresh outlook on “Chicago.”
Jones is familiar with the Broadway revival, for he was a swing performer and later dance captain, during four separate runs for him (performing in total for about four and a half years). He worked with Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey and James Naughton, who began their roles in 1996. So, he had specific ideas on what to keep and what to change.
His associate choreographer, Barry Busby, deserves a shout-out too, for the dance numbers are seamless. They put the roar back in The Roaring Twenties, and the vibrancy shows in Bowden-led “Roxie” and “Me and My Baby,” and Billy’s flashy “Razzle Dazzle.”
“Chicago” will always be Fosse’s magnus opus, for his signature moves, those distinctive deliberate dance steps – and jazz hands! But this isn’t a copycat at all. (Fosse may have lost the Tonys for choreographer and director pf “Chicago” to “A Chorus Line” in 1976, but he holds the all-time record, with eight, for choreography).
The athletic dancers excel at the high-octane numbers. Six performers carry out “Cell Block Tango” with the attitudes you expect – Liz (Madison Johnson), Annie (Taeler Cyrus), June (Veronica Fiaoni), Hunyak (Lizz Picini), Velma (Ghee), and Mona (Carleigh Bettiol), more commonly known as “Pop, Six, Squish, Uh-Uh, Cicero, and Lipschitz.”
Bowden plays Hart with verve, oozing phony wholesomeness in the public eye and a ruthless craving for attention when not. She was here once, in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” and is an energetic firecracker on stage.
The magnetic Ghee sashays and struts as tough-as-nails Kelly, resentful of Hart being the shiny new sensation. He got our attention as Lola in “Kinky Boots” in 2019 and is a dynamic force every time he appears. Wearing satiny outfits and displaying a silky voice, he sets the tone with a seductive “All That Jazz” and an indignant “I Know a Girl,” and shows off his dexterity in “I Can’t Do It Alone.”
Bowden is fire to Ghee’s ice, a combustible fun mix for the “My Own Best Friend” that closes Act 1 and the “Nowadays”/ “Hot Honey Rag” finale with those omnipresent canes and hats Fosse was so fond of using.
James T. Lane embodies the slick ambulance chaser lawyer Billy Flynn with a demanding and greedy nature – and delivers a dandy disingenuous “All I Care About” – accompanied by a marvelous fan dance that received its own ovation. Lane was last seen as Sebastian in 2017’s “Little Mermaid” here.
One of this show’s standout numbers is the “We Both Reached for the Gun” press conference rag with Billy pulling Roxie’s strings like a ventriloquist and the ensemble doing fast footwork.
It’s good to see veteran performers Emily Skinner and Adam Heller, who were both in The Rep’s magnificent “Follies” in 2016, and St. Louis Theater Circle nominees for previous Muny work, back on the outdoor stage. As Matron “Mama” Morton, Skinner belts out a terrific “When You’re Good to Mama” and teams with Ghee on one of my favorites, “Class.”
Heller, last seen as Ben Franklin in “1776,” plays Roxy’s cuckolded husband Amos Hart as a more naïve sad sack, not realizing how he is being manipulated. He strikes the right tone for an affecting ‘Mr. Cellophane.”
With her sweet soprano, Ali Ewoldt poses as the powerful radio personality Mary Sunshine and sings the ironic “Little Bit of Good.”
Regular Michael James Reed capably portrays five different roles in the ensemble: stage manager, Sgt. Fogarty, doctor, Aaron and the Judge.
The technical elements were also superior, with costume designer Emily Rebholz’s striking work with vintage fashions and for limber dance outfits, accompanied by strong wig design by Tommy Kurzman.
The shortened season is coming to an end, and what the Muny achieved this summer is remarkable, putting five shows together in eight weeks. This is also the time for a fond farewell to Denny Reagan, who is retiring after spending 53 years at the Muny, the last 30 as President and CEO.
A trip to the Muny isn’t complete until you greet Denny, or see him greeting patrons, at his ‘spot.’ We look forward to working with his top-shelf successor, Kwofe Coleman, starting in January.
This collaborative production was a grand, great, swell time where all the elements came together in blissful harmony.
Attendance for the opening night performance was 6,435. The show runs an estimated 2 hours and 30 minutes.
“Chicago” is the final show of the shortened 103rd five-show season, through Sunday, Sept. 5. Performances are at 8:15 p.m. each evening on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. Emerson was the 103rd season sponsor.
For more information, visit muny.org.
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The Muny announced today 27 principal cast members for its 2021 season in Forest Park. Complete company casting will be announced throughout June and July.
After what will be a 23-month intermission, The Muny’s 103rd season will open with the Muny premiere of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, followed by the beloved classic The Sound of Music. The season continues with a newly reimagined Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the Midwest regional and Muny premiere of On Your Feet! and closes with Broadway’s longest-running American musical Chicago. The Telsey Office is the official casting partner for The Muny.
“This is an amazing, thrilling, heart-stopping collection of talented artists,” said Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson. “Our return this year in many ways has as much significance as our 100th season. It means so much to so many. I can’t wait for these amazing people to share their gifts.” SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE The Songs of Leiber and Stoller July 26 – August 1 Words and Music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller Sponsored by Ameren
CHARL BROWN (Sonny) is thrilled to be appearing on The Muny stage for the first time and at this historic moment for theatre. He was nominated for a Tony Award for the role of Smokey Robinson in Motown: The Musical and reprised this role opening the West End production. This winter, he is slated to appear as Brick in Virginia Stage’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Other Broadway/tour: Jersey Boys, Sister Act, Hair. Select regional: The Who’s Tommy (Denver Center, Kennedy Center), Ever After (Paper Mill Playhouse), Johnny Baseball (American Repertory Theater), Dreamgirls, Ragtime, Six Degrees of Separation, Jesus Christ Superstar, A Chorus Line. Select television: FBI, Evil, Madam Secretary. When not in an acting role, Charl tours the globe with his group, The Doowop Project, including venues such as The Blue Note Beijing, Disney Symphony Hall, Ottawa Symphony, City Winery Nashville and many others worldwide.
MICHAEL CAMPAYNO (Rod) originated the role of Rob Camilletti in The Cher Show and also starred as Fiyero in the hit musical Wicked on Broadway. A Pittsburgh native and graduate of Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, he made his television debut as Rolf in the NBC live telecast of The Sound of Music starring Carrie Underwood and can be heard on the cast recording. His other credits include Lancelot in Camelot starring Robert Sean Leonard and Barry Bostwick, productions at Pittsburgh CLO, and in concert with the Phoenix Symphony and Carolina Philharmonic. Television: The Other Two (HBOMAX), The Good Fight (CBS). Proud member of SAG, AFTRA and AEA. Follow @michaelcampayno
MYKAL KILGORE (Little Walter) is an award-winning actor and a Grammy and NAACP Image Award-nominated singer/songwriter. His debut album, A Man Born Black, is a gumbo of American roots and modern feels that highlight his ability to go from Broadway showtune storytelling to soul and jazz scatting to gospel. Mykal most recently starred in his online special, Mykal Kilgore Live… on the Innanets! Broadway: Motown: The Musical and Hair. National tour: The Book of Mormon. Other select credits: The Witch in Into the Woods at Barrington Stage Company, The Who’s Tommy at The Kennedy Center, Songs for a New World at Encores! OffCenter. TV/Film: NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, The Wiz Live! and Collateral Beauty. Mykal has racked up 10M+ views on social media with his videos, including his viral Reclaiming My Time video. #blacklivesmatter #translivesmatter #loveoneanother MYKALKILGORE.COM
TIFFANY MANN (Willie Mae) Broadway: Be More Chill, Waitress. Off-Broadway: Jerry Springer: The Opera (Lucille Lortel Award), Invisible Thread, Cabin in the Sky. Other select theater: Dreamgirls (Effie), Live from Lincoln Center: Sweeney Todd in Concert. TV: New Amsterdam and Rise for NBC, Orange Is the New Black. @iamtiffanymann
HAYLEY PODSCHUN (Annette) Originally from Kansas, Hayley returns to The Muny after playing Dainty June in the 2018 production of Gypsy. Broadway: Wicked (Glinda, national tour), Hello, Dolly!; Something Rotten, Chaplin (Mildred Harris), Anything Goes, Pal Joey, Sunday in the Park with George, Hairspray (Broadway, national tour) and The Sound of Music. Off-Broadway: Freckleface Strawberry (Freckleface, original cast). Select regional credits: Holiday Inn (Linda Mason, Paper Mill Playhouse), I Married an Angel (Anna Murphy, NY City Center Encores!), The Royal Family of Broadway (Gwen, Barrington Stage, world premiere), Holiday Inn (Lila Dixon, Goodspeed, world premiere) Crazy for You (Polly, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival), Peter Pan (Peter Pan, Artpark), Legally Blonde (Elle Woods, Arvada Center). Film/TV: Hairspray (Tammy), The Blacklist, Louie, Isn’t It Romantic and Hail, Caesar; You can also find Hayley on QVC as a guest host for Zodiac Shoes. IG: @hayley_podschun or www.hayleypodschun.com for more!
CHRISTOPHER SAMS (Cornelius) is ecstatic to join The Muny and Marcia Milgrom Dodge in turning up the summer heat with Leiber and Stoller’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Broadway credits feature Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King. National touring credits include The Lion King (Ensemble, u/s Mufasa), The Color Purple (Ensemble/Grady/Buster), Ragtime (Coalhouse Walker Jr.) and Rock of Ages (Ensemble/Ja’Keith). Became a proud AEA member doing Smokey Joe’s Cafe with Ms. Dodge in 2016 and this is Chris’ third time rocking through the neighborhood.
NASIA THOMAS (Pearl) was most recently seen as Cathy in Out of The Box Theatrics version of The Last Five Years. In the fall, she can be seen as The Radio in the upcoming revival of Caroline, or Change on Broadway. Most recently seen in Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations on Broadway. Broadway: Little Eva in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. National tour: Beautiful. Regional: Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations (Berkeley Rep, Kennedy Center, Center Theatre Group, Mirvish Theatre), Beauty and the Beast (TUTS), Hairspray, (Muny). BFA Musical Theatre, Elon ‘15, The Governors School for the Arts ‘11. Member at DGRW Talent. IG: @nasiathomas.
JASON VEASEY (Doc) Jason is happy to be back in one of his favorite cities making his Muny debut! Theatre credits include the Broadway and national touring companies of The Lion King, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Strange Loop and a couple visits to Smokey Joe’s Cafe! He’s been at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Denver Center and The Public in New York. TV/Film credits include High Maintenance, Chicago Fire, Little Voice, Dash & Lily, Flatbush Misdemeanors and I’m Not Him.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC August 3– 9 Music by Richard Rodgers Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse Suggested by “The Trapp Family Singers” by Maria Augusta Trapp Sponsored by Edward Jones
KATE ROCKWELL (Maria Rainer) is thrilled to be back at The Muny! Previous Muny credits include Beauty and the Beast (Belle) and Tarzan (Jane). On Broadway, she recently starred as the original Karen Smith in Mean Girls: The Musical (Drama Desk nomination). Her previous Broadway dumb blondes include originating the role of Skylar in Bring It On: The Musical, Rock of Ages, Hair and Legally Blonde. She’s been seen recently as Nina Bennett on Fox’s Almost Family, High Maintenance, Deadbeat and Sex and the City: The Movie. Upcoming: Harlem on Amazon. She released her debut solo album, Back To My Roots, in 2018 on Broadway Records, and has performed her solo concert by the same name at Birdland Jazz Club, City Winery and other venues in NYC. She is a WSET-certified wine lover and has the two cutest dogs on the planet.
MICHAEL HAYDEN (Captain Georg von Trapp) Broadway: All My Sons, Festen, Henry IV, Judgement at Nuremberg (Tony nomination), Cabaret, Carousel. Off-Broadway: The Lady from Dubuque, Measure for Measure, Dessa Rose, Far East. London: Cabaret, Carousel (Olivier nomination). Regional: Much Ado About Nothing, The Winter’s Tale, Henry V, Richard II, Merrily We Roll Along. Film: Patient 001, Charming Billy (American Film Institute Best Actor Award). TV: Evil, Elementary, Chicago Fire, Law & Order and Murder One.
BRYONHA MARIE PARHAM (The Mother Abbess) is thrilled to be making her Muny debut in her home state! Broadway: Prince of Broadway, The Book of Mormon, After Midnight, The Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, Ragtime. Off Broadway/NY: Promenade (NY City Center Encores!), Candide (Carnegie Hall), Ragtime (Lincoln Center). National tour: Falsettos. World premieres: Dave (Arena Stage), Prince of Broadway (Tokyo Theatre Orb). Concert: New York Philharmonic, San Diego Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra (Bernstein’s Mass), Kansas City Symphony, 92nd Street Y Lyrics & Lyricists series. Regional: The Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess (American Repertory Theater), Ragtime (Kennedy Center), The Civil War (NETworks), Hair (Sacramento Music Circus), Dreamgirls (Effie, North Shore), Little Shop of Horrors (Berkshire Theatre Group) and many more! Television: The SpongeBob Musical: Live on Stage!; Madam Secretary, Live from Lincoln Center: Sweeney Todd in Concert (Beggar Woman) and Show Boat in Concert, 66th and 68th Annual Tony Awards, The Today Show. Twitter/Instagram: @BryonhaMarie
ELIZABETH TEETER (Liesl von Trapp) is thrilled to return to the Muny stage after last being seen off-Broadway as Lily in The Secret Life of Bees (Atlantic Theatre Company). Broadway: Betty in The Crucible, Young Elizabeth in The Audience, starring Helen Mirren; and Jane Banks in the closing company of Mary Poppins. Other NYC credits include workshops with Kathleen Marshall, Anne Kauffman, Leigh Silverman, Rachel Brosnahan and more. Regional: The Muny, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Opera Theatre St. Louis, Tennessee Williams Festival, Variety Theatre. TV/Film: Leaving (short film), The Last O.G. (TBS). You can also see her this August as Laura in The Glass Menagerie with the Tennessee Williams Festival. Eleven years ago, she played one of the tiniest von Trapp children at The Muny and is honored for this full circle moment. @elizabethteeterofficial
ANDREW ALSTAT (Rolf Gruber) is thrilled to be returning to The Muny for his second season! Originally from Pomona, Illinois, Andrew is a recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he received his BFA in Musical Theatre. He was last seen on the Muny stage as Chuck Cranston in Footloose. Recent credits: The Rocky Horror Show (Rocky) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Frederick) for CCM, Newsies (Albert, Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts), Legally Blonde (Emmett) and Anything Goes (Billy Crocker) for McLeod Summer Playhouse. @a_alstat. @andrewalstat_photography
JENNY POWERS (Elsa Schraeder) is thrilled to be back at the Muny where her credits include 1776 (Abigail Adams, 2019), Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (Monotony Singer/Hildy, 2018), Mamma Mia! (Tanya, 2016); The Addams Family (Morticia Addams, 2014), Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins, 2013), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Milly, 2011), Camelot (Guenevere, 2009) and Oliver! (Nancy, 2006). Broadway: Rizzo in Grease and Meg in Little Women. Theatre highlights: Marie Dancing Still (5th Avenue Theatre), Lois Lane in It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman (NY City Center Encores!), Donnybrook! (Irish Rep, Drama Desk nomination); Dangerous Beauty (Pasadena Playhouse), Happiness (Lincoln Center), Secondhand Lions (5th Avenue) and Little Dancer (Kennedy Center). TV: The Mysteries of Laura, Blue Bloods, Power, The Good Wife, Mercy, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Nurse Jackie, All My Children. She is also the co- founder of The Link Theatre Company thelinktheatre.org jenny-powers.com
JOHN SCHERER (Max Detweiler) has appeared at The Muny in Cinderella, Kinky Boots, Annie, Young Frankenstein, The Buddy Holly Story, The Addams Family, Spamalot and Mame. He has appeared on Broadway in LoveMusik, By Jeeves and Sunset Boulevard. Off-Broadway credits include Dames at Sea, Olympus on My Mind and Preppies. Other NY credits include The Most Happy Fella (NY City Opera) and Out of This World (NY City Center Encores!). He has toured nationally in 42nd Street, Cats, Mame, Hello, Dolly! and White Christmas. His regional credits include Arena Stage, Goodman Theatre, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Kennedy Center, Goodspeed Opera House, Paper Mill Playhouse and many others. Television credits include Blue Bloods, The Shield, Crossing Jordan, Law & Order (SVU and CI) and Titus. He is originally from Buffalo, NY and is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University. SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS August 12 – 18 Book by Lawrence Kasha and David Landay Lyrics by Johnny Mercer Music by Gene de Paul New Songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn Based on the MGM Film and “The Sobbin’ Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet Dance Music Arrangements by Sam Davis Sponsored by U.S. Bank
KENDRA KASSEBAUM (Milly Bradon) Muny: Guys and Dolls (Miss Adelaide, 2019). On Broadway, Kendra originated the role of Janice in the Tony-nominated production of Come From Away as well as Sam in Leap of Faith. She played Glinda in Wicked on Broadway, in San Francisco and on the first national tour (Helen Hayes nomination). Other New York: The Receptionist (Manhattan Theatre Club) and the Tony Award-winning, Grammy-nominated production of Assassins. Kendra made her Broadway debut in Rent. For Roundabout Theatre, she performed the role of Petra in A Little Night Music, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson. Kassebaum’s regional appearances include Actors Theatre of Louisville, The 5th Avenue Theatre, American Conservatory Theater, Ordway, Florida Stage and her hometown St. Louis Muny. Film: The Other Woman (with Natalie Portman and Lisa Kudrow).
EDWARD WATTS (Adam Pontipee) is delighted to make his post-pandemic debut at The Muny! Broadway: Robert/David in Scandalous. Other New York: Superman (It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman), El Gallo (The Fantasticks), Joe (The Most Happy Fella) and Steve (Show Boa Tours: The Book of Mormon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Les Misérables and The Little Mermaid. Selected regional: The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Old Globe), Harold Hill in The Music Man (Goodspeed Musicals), Joe Bradley in Roman Holiday (Guthrie Theater), Carl-Magnus in A Little Night Music (Michigan Opera Theatre), Thomas Jefferson in 1776 (Goodspeed) and Miles Gloriosus in A Funny Thing… Forum (Shakespeare Theatre Company, Helen Hayes nomination). Television: NCIS: New Orleans, Quantico, The Sopranos, Rescue Me. Proud member of AEA. EdwardWatts.net.
ON YOUR FEET! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan August 21 – 27 Featuring Music Produced and Recorded by Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine Book by Alexander Dinelaris Sponsored by BMO Harris Bank
OMAR LOPEZ-CEPERO (Emilio) is deeply humbled to return to the Muny stage after appearing in Paint Your Wagon (Armando) and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Prior to the pandemic shutdown, he was seen in the off-Broadway premiere of The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Vincenzo). Broadway: On Your Feet! and American Idiot. Off-Broadway: The Public Theater’s Central Park concert of The Capeman. Regional/tour credits: The Flamingo Kid (Alejandro) at Hartford Stage, Guys and Dolls (Sky Masterson) at Theatre Under The Stars, Evita as Che (national tour, Fulton Theatre) and as Peron (Bay Street Theater). TV credits: Blue Bloods (CBS), The Detour (TBS), Vegas (CBS). He is a graduate of The University of Miami Frost School of Music with a degree in Vocal Performance. Alongside his performing career, he has developed an acting and voice studio where he coaches professional artists and students to maximize their potential. www.omarlopezcepero.com @omarlopezcepero
NATASCIA DIAZ (Gloria Fajardo) Most widely recognized for the documentary Every Little Step, this three-time Helen Hayes Award-winner returns to The Muny after her “breathtaking” turn as Velma Kelly in Chicago, and her award-winning turn as Anita in West Side Story. Broadway: Seussical (Bird Girl), Man of La Mancha (Antonia, u/s Aldonza). Off-Broadway: Tick, Tick…Boom!, Jacques Brel…; Washington DC: Petra (A Little Night Music) Rosalie (Carnival), Aurora (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Her first Helen Hayes happened in a tie with Chita Rivera for her transformation into Scottish rocker Monica in Rooms, and her second for her performance in Brel. Other favorites: Jenny (The Threepenny Opera), Betty 3, Collective Rage (Woolly Mammoth), Mariana (Measure for Measure), Savage (Savage in Limbo), Rafaella (Grand Hotel, NY City Center Encores!) and winning her third award for her “obsessively watchable, gorgeously sung” (Washington Post) role in a “career-defining performance” (BroadwayWorld) as Fosca in Sondheim’s Passion. TV: FBI IG:@LadyDiaz777
ALMA CUERVO (Consuelo) Broadway: On Your Feet!; Beauty and the Beast, Cabaret, Titanic, The Heidi Chronicles, Quilters, Is There Life After High School?; Censored Scenes from King Kong and Bedroom Farce. She has toured nationally in Wicked, My Fair Lady, Cabaret, M. Butterfly and Dancing at Lughnasa. Off-Broadway: Allegro (Classic Stage Company), Far From Heaven (Playwrights Horizons) and Road Show (The Public). She received an OBIE for her performance in Uncommon Women and Others and Philadelphia’s Barrymore Award for The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Ms. Cuervo has worked extensively in regional theatre, most recently In the Heights at Music Theatre Wichita and Yerma at Huntington Theatre. Film/Television: The Goldfinch, Bull, Lisey’s Story, City on a Hill, Instinct, The Slap, and she was a regular on Norman Lear’s AKA Pablo. She narrates many audiobooks and is a graduate of Tulane University and Yale School of Drama.
LEE ZARRETT (Phil) Broadway: My Fair Lady, On Your Feet!; Hair, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Jane Eyre. National tours: Peter and the Starcatcher, Les Misérables. TV: The Blacklist, High Fidelity, Gotham, Louie, Boardwalk Empire. Off-Broadway: NY City Center Encores!, New Victory, Vineyard Theatre. Regional: Pittsburg CLO, La Jolla Playhouse.
CHICAGO August 30 – September 5 Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Foss Music by John Kander Lyrics by Fred Ebb Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins Script Adaptation by David Thompson Sponsored by Missouri Lottery
SARAH BOWDEN (Roxie Hart) Originally from Australia, Sarah most recently played Velma Kelly in Chicago at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre with Denis Jones directing and is beyond excited to be working with Denis again on this dream show! USA highlights include Cherry Sundae in the first national tour of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, playing Cassie in A Chorus Line in 2016 at The Hollywood Bowl opposite Mario Lopez, and her first Muny production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in 2018. Sarah spent many years in Germany playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Anita in West Side Story, Doralee in 9 to 5, Gloria in Flashdance and lastly, Esmeralda in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Scott Schwartz (director) and Chase Brock (choreographer). INSTA: @sarahbowden.de
J. HARRISON GHEE (Velma Kelly) is honored to be returning to The Muny playing Velma Kelly. Many thanks to family, friends, and his agency Nicolosi & Co. for continued love and support. Broadway/International tour: Kinky Boots (Lola/Swing), Mrs. Doubtfire (Andre Mayem). Regional: The Color Purple (Ensemble), The Sting (Johnny Hooker). Television: High Maintenance (Charles), Raising Dion (Kwame). Industrial: Tokyo Disney Sea’s Big Band Beat, Norwegian Cruise Line. Proud graduate of The American Musical and Dramatic Academy (NY) @jharrisonghee
EMILY SKINNER (Matron “Mama” Morton) Muny: Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Billy Elliot. Broadway: Side Show (Tony nomination, Drama League Award), The Cher Show, Prince of Broadway, Jekyll & Hyde, The Full Monty, James Joyce’s The Dead, Dinner at Eight (Outer Critics Circle nomination), Billy Elliot (BroadwayWorld Award). Off-Broadway: Picnic (Drama Desk nomination), Jerry Springer: The Opera (Carnegie Hall), Fiorello!; No Strings, Pardon My English, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (all for NY City Center Encores!). She has sung leading roles at Manhattan Theatre Club, WPA Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Roundabout Theatre Company, York Theatre, Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden. Regional: The Kennedy Center, Signature Theatre, Alliance Theatre, Ford’s Theatre, Long Wharf, Old Globe, Goodspeed, Bucks County Playhouse, Virginia Rep, and many others. She has sung with symphonies around the globe and her numerous recordings may be found at Amazon.com. www.emily-skinner.com
JAMES T. LANE (Billy Flynn) West End: The Scottsboro Boys, A Chorus Line (Palladium, revival). Broadway: Kiss Me, Kate (Paul), King Kong, The Scottsboro Boys (Ozie Powell/Ruby Bates), Chicago and A Chorus Line (Richie). National tours: Jersey Boys, Cinderella, Fame. Regional: Guys and Dolls (Nicely Nicely, Virginia Stage Company), Mary Poppins (Bert, Drury Lane Theatre), The Wiz (Tin Man), Promenade, Grand Hotel and Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope (all for NY City Center Encores!), Disney’s The Little Mermaid (Sebastian, The Muny), Broadway at Music Circus, The Old Globe, American Conservatory Theater and Dallas Theater Center. Concerts: Carnegie Hall with The New York Pops, Ottawa Symphony and many more. James is the creator of a one man show entitled Triple Threat: A Play That Moves and Sings. Look for streaming information, booking, as well as performance dates at www.jamestlane.com. Mr. Lane teaches music theatre dance when and wherever anyone will let him! Instagram: @jamestlane www.jamestlane.com
ADAM HELLER (Amos Hart) Muny: Gypsy, 1776. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis: Follies, Brighton Beach Memoirs. Broadway: It Shoulda Been You, Elf, Baby, It’s You; Caroline, or Change; A Class Act, Victor/Victoria; Les Misérables. National tours: Titanic, Falsettos. Off-Broadway: Popcorn Falls (Davenport), A Letter to Harvey Milk (Theater Row), Peer Gynt (CSC), Wings (Second Stage), Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn and The Immigrant (New World Stages), Merrily We Roll Along (York). Regional: The Flamingo Kid (Hartford Stage), Fiddler on the Roof (Connecticut Critics Circle Award) and Rags (Goodspeed), The Chosen (Barrington Stage), My Name is Asher Lev (Arden), Merrily We Roll Along (Kennedy Center). TV: The Bite, FBI: Most Wanted; Ray Donovan, The Good Fight, Elementary, Unforgettable, The Americans, The Sopranos, Law & Order (all), Oz, Submissions Only. Graduate: NYU/Tisch.
ALI EWOLDT (Mary Sunshine) is beyond thrilled to return to The Muny. She appeared here as Philia in Forum, Martha Jefferson in 1776 and Maria in West Side Story. Other credits include Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, Cosette in Les Misérables (Broadway, national tour), The King and I (Broadway, tour, Lyric Opera of Chicago), Maria in West Side Story (national tour, international tour), Luisa in The Fantasticks (off-Broadway), Fan/Mrs. Bonds in A Christmas Carol (McCarter Theatre) and Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls (Sacramento Music Circus). Concert/symphony work: Alice Tully Hall, The Town Hall, NY Pops at Carnegie Hall, Houston Symphony, American Pops Orchestra, Kaohsiung Symphony and The Boston Pops with Maestro Keith Lockhart. Her TV/Film credits include The Michael J. Fox Show, Yield, Mia and The Cactus. Ali has a BA in psychology from Yale University and is a proud Filipina American and member of Actors’ Equity. @aliewoldt
Current season ticket holders for the 2021 season will receive their season tickets later this month. New season subscriptions for the 2021 five-show season are currently available, with single tickets becoming available July 12. Tickets can be purchased online at muny.org or by phone by calling (314) 361-1900 ext 1550. Currently, the box office in Forest Park is closed for walk-up service until July 5.
To stay connected virtually and to receive the latest updates, please follow The Muny on their social media channels, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Emerson is proud to be The Muny’s 2021 Season Sponsor.
Local actor-singer lands national tour, Tony-nominated local playwright ready for another Broadway go-round, managing editor Lynn Venhaus back on Broadway (the street) and reflects on Neil Simon, local fest in lieu of Lou Fest and more!
SOMETHING WONDERFUL: St. Louis’s own Mark Saunders has landed a plum role in a national tour of the Tony-nominated musical “Something Rotten!” He is playing Brother Jeremiah, the father of Portia, a Puritan girl who falls in love with the single Bottom brother, Nigel.
The new Work Light Productions’ non-Equity tour will launch Sept. 19 at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts in Columbus, Georgia, and he’ll be on the road until next June. The tour includes a one-day stop in March at the Stifel Theatre (formerly the Peabody).
This hilarious musical comedy tells the story of brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom, two playwrights stuck in the shadow of that Renaissance rock-star William Shakespeare. When a soothsayer foretells the next big thing in theatre involves singing, dancing, and acting at the same time, the Bottom brothers set out to write the world’s very first musical.
“Something Rotten!” premiered on Broadway in 2015 and was nominated for nine Tony Awards, with Christian Borle winning for Best Featured Actor as Shakespeare.
So, how did this exciting opportunity happen? Mark, a St. Louis native and graduate of Bishop DuBourg High School, said he responded to an audition notice and asked for advice from a friend who had worked on the producing side of the original Broadway production.
“After chatting with him, and a lot of amazing people helping me out, I was able to get my materials (headshot, resume, website, etc.) to the casting agency and they called me in for an audition,” he said.
It was on his birthday, a Monday. He was called back that Thursday and found out the next day he was cast.
“It was even crazier because the day that I found out and flew home, I had to perform a piece by Rachmaninov in Russian with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. So, I landed around 3-ish and had to get my life together and be at Powell Hall for a concert at 7 p.m. It was a crazy nine days from the day that I got the initial email to the day that I found out that I booked the show,” he said.
Currently, he is rehearsing in NYC. During the past few weeks, he has been getting fittings done, and taking care of other logistics.
When he had a shoe fitting for a custom pair of boots at LaDuca, he described it as “an insanely happy moment.”
“You hear about all these kinds of moments, but when it’s actually you, it’s crazy!” he said. “I’m super excited that we’re going to play the Stifel Theatre in St. Louis on March 13, 2019! I can’t wait to share this amazing cast and show with my family and friends.”
Born and raised in Dogtown, Mark has worked different day jobs while pursuing performing opportunities. Recently, he was in Union Avenue Opera’s “Lost in the Stars” and can be seen in a Missouri Lottery commercial for The Voice VIP Promotion. He has been a paid singer with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus for the past five years.
In addition to Mark, the cast features Matthew Baker as Shakespeare, Matthew Janisse as Nick Bottom, Greg Kalafatas as Nostradamus, Emily Kristen Morris as Bea, Jennifer Elizabeth Smith as Portia, and Richard Spitaletta as Nigel Bottom.
For more info or tickets, visit www.rottenbroadway.com
Bravo and Break a Leg!
***IN LIEU FESTIVAL: Sunday will still be a Fun Day, thanks to the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, who has come to the rescue of local bands without a venue now that the Lou Fest has been cancelled.
“The Sound of St. Louis Showcase,” a free musical festival will take place on two stages — at The Grandel Theatre and the Dark Room (in the Grandel) — from 2 to 10 p.m. Sept. 9 in the Grand Center Arts District.
In addition to the Kranzbergs, other sponsors include Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, Gaslight, the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis, Express Scripts, and Red Bull are presenting this showcase of “some of the best talent in our vibrant music scene. Help us uplift and celebrate ‘The Sound of St. Louis.’ More local vendors may become involved.
The local line-up includes Ben Reece’s Unity Quartet, Bob DeBoo, The Burney Sisters, Dracla, Grace Basement, Jesse Gannon, Kasimu-tet, Kevin Bowers, Nova, The Knuckles, Mo Egeston, Owen Ragland, Ptah Williams Trio, The River Kittens, Scrub & Ace Ha and Tonina.
GO SEE A PLAY POLL: Oh, what a beautiful day! You can win two free tickets to “Oklahoma!” at Stages St. Louis for either this Friday or Saturday.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration will open at Stages St. Louis Sept. 7 and will run through Oct. 7. When it debuted on Broadway 75 years ago, it changed the face of the American musical, and ran for more than five years.
Were you in a school production, in community theater or professional regional theater? It seems many people were. Who is your favorite among the iconic characters?
Such history! Those unforgettable classic songs “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “I Cain’t Say No” and “Kansas City,” not to mention the title number, always stay with you.
You can see Stages’ fresh take on this historic musical by entering our Go See a Play Poll. Respond to our poll question on who your favorite iconic character is, along with your name and phone number, and send to: [email protected] by noon Friday, Sept. 7. We will draw a name, and you can choose either Friday or Saturday, Sept. 7 or 8, at 8 p.m. performance – two tickets. We’ll let you know and help arrange your selected evening with the fine folks at Stages St. Louis.
Who is your favorite character from “Oklahoma!”?
Ado Annie Carnes
Peter Wochniak photo
***THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT: Every year, new theater troupes pop up in the metropolitan St. Louis area, but perhaps the biggest growth is with youth groups. The Debut Theatre started this year and all proceeds benefit Pedal the Cause, which funds cancer research. The youth-founded group will present its third Acting Against Cancer event with a performance of “Into the Woods” on Saturday, Sept. 22 at the Chesterfield YMCA.
Debut Theatre Company was founded by youth to promote life-long learning and appreciation of the arts toward a more conscious and compassionate community. Its goal is to engage, inspire and entertain.
The mission statement includes: “We hope to make a difference for our artists, our audiences and those who benefit through our charitable cause. This youth centered company celebrates the essential power of the theatre to illuminate our common humanity.”
In the metro-east, St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church music director Stephen Eros and his wife, Jamie Marble Eros, music director at St. Clare School, organized a community theatre troupe to present “Godspell,” with 13 adults and teens in the cast, last month. A 25-member children’s chorus, which rehearsed through a week-long music camp at the church, joined the cast for two public performances.
***SIDE BY SIDE: Tony nominee Chad Beguelin of Centralia, Ill., is gearing up for another Broadway opening. He co-wrote the book with Bob Martin and lyrics for the musical “The Prom,” which begins previews Oct. 23, along with writing partner Matthew Sklar, who composed the music.
Chad Beguelin of Centralia, Ill. on 42nd Street near graphics of shows he’s both a part of on Broadway. Photo provided.He posted this recent picture in front of the Longacre Theatre at 220 W. 42nd Street, the new home of “The Prom,” while “Aladdin” is currently running next door, at the New Amsterdam Theatre. He wrote the book and new lyrics to the 2011 musical “Aladdin,” invited by Alan Menken to do so, and landed his third and fourth Tony nominations in the process. Fun to have two of your shows collide (his other major works include “The Wedding Singer” – Tony nominations for book and lyrics — and “Elf”). The duo’s website is: www.sklarandbeguelin.com
“The Prom” is about a canceled high school dance and four fading Broadway stars who seize the opportunity to fight for justice — and a piece of the spotlight
Beth Leavel and Adam HellerBest wishes to Muny favorite Beth Leavel and her leading man, Adam Heller, on their recent engagement. They played Rose and Herbie in The Muny production of “Gypsy” this summer, and she is preparing to star in The Prom.” They are shown here attending the 2015 premiere of “It Shoulda Been You.”
Those aren’t the only local connections. “The Prom” producers include Jack Lane, Terry Schnuck and Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, all of St. Louis.
Talk about timing! New Line Theatre will produce “Be More Chill” in May, and the musical sensation is moving to Broadway in March.
Attagirls to the MVPs of SATE, who dealt with an audience medical emergency during the final performance of “No Exit” at The Chapel Sept. 1. Kudos to Kristen Strom, stage manager; Bess Moynihan, director; and Ellie Schwetye, producer for the cool and calm efforts.
(And another round of applause for the cast – Rachel Tibbetts, Shane Signorino, Sarah Morris and Katy Keating — for their professionalism).
WORD: “I can’t take his genius anymore.” – Rita Hayworth, on divorcing Orson Welles.
On Sept. 7, 1943, Welles whisked Hayworth away from the set of “Cover Girl” and they were married at the Santa Monica City Hall. She was 25, he was 28. Their marriage would last less than four years; they had one daughter, Rebecca.
BROADWAY BOUND: During a recent trip to NYC to visit my youngest son, I was fortunate to see “Straight White Men” starring Armie Hammer, Josh Charles, Paul Schneider and Stephen Payne, with introduction and some supporting work from Kate Bournstein and Ty Dafoe, at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre. It is a 10-week limited run ending Sept. 9.
Charlie and Lynn Venhaus at Helen Hayes Theatre, Aug. 26.Written by Young Jean Lee, she is the first Asian-American female playwright to be produced on Broadway. She provided laughter and poignancy, striking a chord about family interactions when you are grown-ups.
The Helen Hayes Theatre is the smallest on Broadway, at 597 seats, and recently renovated to become Second Stage’s new home.
It starts out on Christmas Eve with a widowed dad and his three grown sons — two who live out of town. With its Christmas setting, the play about family dynamics and the responsibilities that come with education and privilege lends itself to the intimate atmosphere. It’s 90 minutes, no intermission.
All the actors were good – convincing as a real family – but Paul Schneider is the one I’d for sure single out for awards. I hope it’s considered for multiple Tony Award nominations.
So many people connected with this show were Steppenwolf Theatre veterans and involved in the “This Is Our Youth” revival that both sons and I saw at the Cort Theatre in November 2014, notably director Anna D. Shapiro and scenic designer Todd Rosenthal. They also launched Tracey Letts’ “August: Osage County.”
No wonder this was so tip-top. I can see local theater groups wanting to produce it, and there is plenty of local talent to fill those roles. I suspect I will see it again. This play will likely have a good run with groups across the country.
Barbra Streisand sings “Don’t Rain on My Parade”TRIVIA TIME-OUT: Fifty years ago, the movie adaptation of “Funny Girl” premiered on Sept. 8, 1968, earning Barbra Streisand her first Oscar for her first movie role. However, she had originated the role of Fanny Brice on Broadway.
The Academy Award was the first and only tie for Best Actress. Who did she share the award with?
What was Streisand’s second Oscar for?
In 1964, Streisand lost the Tony Award for her performance in “Funny Girl” to what actress?
Katharine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter”
Best Song: “Evergreen” from “A Star is Born”
Carol Channing for “Hello, Dolly!”
TRIBUTE: He was one of my first theater idols and continued to be a favorite, decades later. I discovered Neil Simon in high school, used “The Star-Spangled Girl” for speech competition (comedy interp) senior year, was in his plays “Fools” (Lenya) and “Plaza Suite” (Karen) in community theatre, and made it a point to see pretty much all his shows.
He influenced me in the way he wrote such distinct characters with specific snippets of dialogue to give you hilarious insights into their personalities. He had such an impact on modern comedy!
On Aug. 26, the day Neil Simon died, at age 91, I happened to be in New York City and was planning a Broadway afternoon. So I went by the Neil Simon Theatre to pay my respects and see any tributes.
The playwright had written over 30 plays and movie scripts, mostly adaptations of his own works, but a few originals (“The Out-of-Towners” and “The Goodbye Girl.”)
We headed to the Neil Simon Theatre on W. 52nd in the twilight — as all the marquees began to light up the night, I knew the sign would be dark as a tribute to the legendary funny man. A small memorial had started.
His influence on comedy writers was significant. I read “The Odd Couple” when I was 15 and had never laughed so hard. That was around the time I saw the 1967 movie “Barefoot in the Park” with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, who had played Paul on Broadway. Then I saw “Promises, Promises” with Jerry Orbach at the Muny in 1970, and I marveled at genius. That man was a quip machine!
I realized that reading/seeing Simon’s plays had given me a yearning to see NYC (along with early Woody Allen movies). It was his town, his people. He taught us Midwesterners all about the Big Apple.
Now it was back to my son Charlie’s apartment in Brooklyn, where once upon a time I envisioned Eugene being scolded by his Mom Blanche as he envisioned himself pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers. (“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is one of the few Simon works that makes me cry).
Thank you, Mr. Simon, for making us laugh and recognize ourselves along the way.
Lynn Venhaus as Lenya in Monroe Actors Stage Company’s “Fools” in November 2009.What are your favorites? Please add your comments.
“Fools” was the funniest play I ever was in, and it was my final performance in community theater.
By Lynn Venhaus
Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Imelda Staunton. Their different portraits of the iconic Momma Rose character in “Gypsy” are among the most legendary in theater history. Now add Beth Leavel to that august list.
The Muny’s sixth production of the gutsy Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim classic hits the heights in so many ways, but first and foremost is Leavel’s knockout performance.
Most of the time, the ambitious Momma Rose is viewed as a heartless monster and played in that blustery, brassy Merman-style. Others have realized that Rose is a tough survivor. Either way, she is hard to warm up to, but at least Leavel makes you understand her.
Leavel is a Tony winner for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” veteran of 12 Broadway shows and Muny diva whose “Hello, Dolly!” in 2014 remains one of the outdoor stage’s finest shows. Tackling this titanic role was a challenge I was certain she could meet but was not prepared for the delicate balance she achieved.
Sure, hear her roar. A born belter who projects well, Leavel pretty much started at 11, and then dialed back to modulate this complex character.
Given that Rose was introduced in 1959, when theater was not a champion of woman empowerment, it’s interesting that book writer Arthur Laurents wrote such a complicated part. And now it’s on nearly every actress’s bucket list.
The show is loosely based on the 1957 memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee, a burlesque entertainer known internationally for her striptease artistry. She’s the Louise inspiration, and her sister, actress June Havoc, is Baby June.
Their mother pushed them into the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, dreaming of showbiz success. June was the extroverted performer while Louise was shy and in the background. That changes during the show’s many conflicts.
This ultimate stage mother, fiercely driven and controlling, is twice-divorced and perpetually broke. Rose must be resourceful and rely on her wits in a world not used to strong independent women.
She is a bulldozer, but peerless director Rob Ruggiero’s emphasis is that she’s motivated out of desperation. Always thinking of where their next gig will be, and if they can grab the spotlight, Rose is all about what’s next – for her and those she loves.
Because their mother is living through her children’s lives, Baby June and Louise will suffer the consequences from her abrasive efforts. However, her bossiness hides the fear of failing, of losing, of not making it through to the next day.
Ruggiero’s ability to deconstruct a 1950s era “book musical” and bring out what makes it enduring is why his shows resonate, especially on the expansive Muny stage. Despite my familiarity with a show I’ve seen multiple times, he makes it seem that I’m seeing it for the first time – namely “Hello, Dolly!” “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma” at the Muny, and award-winning “Follies” and “Sunday in the Park with George” at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
Besides a vulnerability that seeps through in this “Gypsy,” there is an undercurrent of hunger. People are hungry physically, emotionally and mentally. They crave some things that have been out of reach or are not yet attainable, whether it be a nourishing meal, a living wage, a sense of worth or a dream realized.
Because of this deeper context, the musical is not just a showcase for Momma Rose, and this cast has an abundance of talent. Adam Heller captures nice-guy agent Herbie, the good cop to Rose’s bad cop, in a nuanced portrait of the man Rose loves – and pushes around. He and Leavel, a real-life couple, are noticeably in sync in their numbers “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and “Together Wherever We Go.”
While they headline, Julia Knitel is a stealth bomber. Lanky and awkward as a reluctant Louise, the proverbial people-pleaser who only wants what Momma says is best, she blooms as Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s a striking performance, and her physical transformation is astonishing – although Knitel was already endearing from the get-go, especially in the heartbreaking “Little Lamb.”
She and Hayley Podschun as June share nice moments, including “If Momma Was Married.”
Their younger counterparts, Amelie Lock as Baby June and Elise Edwards as Baby Louise, are winsome performers. It’s a slick move when Ruggiero transitions them from young to older midway in a number.
Another standout is St. Louisan and Muny regular Drew Redington as Tulsa, a superb dancer who outgrows the kiddie act. His solo to “All I Need Is the Girl” is sensational.
The scene-stealing strippers in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” are not only a hilarious sight gag but terrific performers who were a bright spot of comic relief. Jennifer Cody as Tessie Tura, Ann Harada as an older Electra and Ellen Harvey as a statuesque Mazeppa were laugh-out-loud funny.
Lighting designer John Lasiter’s precise work deserves mention, as does costume designer Amy Clark, going the showbiz gamut from kitsch to glitz — and those distinctive patterned cloth coats for Rose.
Scenic designer Luke Cantarella draped the show in reality – muted colors for drab sets to indicate the hardships during financially strapped times, and the dingy two-bit nature of the fading vaudeville circuit.
Ruggiero’s dream team of choreographer Ralph Perkins and music director James Moore assured that the song-and-dance numbers would be first-rate. They’ve worked together on multiple productions.
Nevertheless, maestro Moore raised the bar. He displayed his expertise conducting the orchestra in an overture that was so magnificent the audience applauded midway. And this was only the start of something special. The orchestra’s big wall of sound, with all that splendid brass, was one of the show’s best elements..
After all, what great material to work with — Jule Styne wrote this unforgettable music. He’s behind such famous tunes as “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Let It Snow” and ‘The Party’s Over.” Paired with lyrics by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim, fresh off “West Side Story,” these songs have stood the test of time.
“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” brings the house down at the end of Act I. And Leavel still had plenty left in her tank for Act 2.
After Rose has cajoled and bullied her way through nearly two acts, we are ready for Momma to confront her demons in the showstopper “Rose’s Turn.”
In this emotional wallop, Leavel gave it everything she had, defiantly going through a litany of anger, frustration and regrets for Rose to finally realize she did it for herself. And to herself.
It’s one of the greatest scenes ever, and Leavel hits it over the free-seats fence. Afterwards, we had to let it sink in, like she did in catharsis, and then wave after wave of applause stopped the show until the very long ovation waned.
That shared experience is what we all hope for when watching live theater, and she earned it, seizing her moment, fearless and alone on that stage.
While the show is bleak – and I’ve seen productions that were darker – there is still a glimmer of hope: that mothers and daughters can reconcile, that brighter days are ahead, and that all the work that goes into a goal was worth it.
This “Gypsy” doesn’t sugar-coat show business or struggles, and instead tells us about real-and-flawed people trying to get by and get noticed. It’s a remarkable achievement in storytelling and features a cast that makes you feel everything they experience.
“Gypsy” was clearly ahead of its time, back in 1959. And this week it was time for the Muny to hit repeat in a brand new way for this Centennial Season.
“Gypsy” is presented July 27 through Aug. 2 at 8:15 p.m. nightly at The Muny’s outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information or tickets, visit www.muny.org or call MetroTix at 314- 534-1111.