By CB Adams

Every so often, The Muny and the St. Louis Symphony come together like Peaches & Herb: “Reunited, and it feels so good…”

These two cultural cousins know how to celebrate. That was definitely the vibe at Power Hall on October 2 when these two local cultural titans combined talents for “A Little Sondheim Music,” a concert to celebrate composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, a titan of different sort. The last time the Symphony and Muny combined forces was to celebrate the The Muny’s 100th birthday.

With Mike Isaacson, the Muny’s Artistic Director and Executive Producer, at the helm as host and master of ceremony, the lively event perked along through a well-curated roster of songs from Sondheim’s career. This was no jukebox jaunt through Sondheim’s songbook. It was a journey into Sondheim’s impressive range of songs and characters, some of which aren’t among his greatest hits.

So, along with the familiar titles from “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Company” and “Sweeney Todd,” the audience was also to treated to selections from the lesser-known “Saturday Night,” “Evening Primrose” and “Anyone Can Whistle.” Another entire concert or two could be created from Sondheim’s deep cuts from other shows. To borrow a line from “Send In the Clowns, “…well, maybe next year.” (hint, hint).

In his opening, Isaacson quoted the three guiding principles that Sondheim hewed to during his career: content dictates form, less is more and God is in the details. To which Sondheim also added, “All in service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters.”

Bryonha Marie in rehearsal. Julie Merkel photo.

Clarity ruled the afternoon performance and elevated the achievements of Sondheim rather than mourn his passing last November at age 91. Lending their vocal talents to the celebration were some of Broadway’s brightest babies:  Ben Davis, Bryonha Marie, Matthew Scott, Emily Skinner and Elizabeth Stanley. Their talents were on full display, whether performing individually, in duets or as an ensemble. And it would be unfair if not impossible to cite any one performance as a standout because they were all standouts.

Ask 10 audience members what their favorite was, and you’d probably get 10 different answers. My own personal favorite was Skinner’s interpretation of “Send In the Clowns.” Her use of pauses and emphasis provided new insight into the lyrics’ meanings and to the rueful ruminations of the character Desirée in “A Little Night Music.”  I’m just a sucker for that song.

Clarity was certainly one of the concert’s throughlines. Songs such as ”If You Can Find Me, I’m Here,” sung by Scott, and “Broadway Baby,” sung by Marie, exemplify Sondheim’s ability to pack an entire show’s worth of characterization into a single lyric. And Scott interpreted his song by channeling an inner Dustin Hoffman, ala “The Graduate,” and Marie delivered sass, sashay and plenty of boop-oop-a-doop to hers.  

Each Sondheim song is its own mini-musical. All of the performers tapped into this with brio and moxie, moving across the narrow strip of stag and conjuring the spirit of the actual musicals. Even if you didn’t know the show, you understood it from the song itself. That’s part Sondheim genius, part musical magic and part high-caliber performance from the artists.

Rehearsal photo of the two Bens – Davis and Whiteley. Photo by Julie Merkel.

Cases in point: Davis, fresh off this last summer’s successful Muny production of “Sweeney Todd,” reprised his take on the chilling “My Friends” by pivoting from fetishistic heavy petting of cutlery to the abrupt declaration, “At last, my arm is complete again!” Dexter should be so lucky.

And Stanley provided a disarmingly plaintive interpretation of “In Buddy’s Eyes” from “Follies” that reworked the breathless suffering usually associated with this song – written for an older character – into an ironic conscience examination of someone younger.

Also providing clarity to the concert was the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Ben Whiteley, who has long been a member of the Muny artistic family. Host Isaacson thanked Whiteley “…who really created this program, bringing his incredible knowledge and passion to the creation of this program.”

The orchestra launched the performance with the opening overture to “Merrily We Roll Along” and was featured post-intermission with the overture to “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” as well as a smooth and graceful “Night Waltz” from “A Little Night Music” in the second half. These were a potent reminder of the beauty of Sondheim’s compositions and how much a fine performance of them deepens their impact.

Also in the second half was a special appearance by St. Louis native Ken Page who sang “Anyone Can Whistle” with a sage-like preciousness that did the Old Deuteronomy cat proud.

As the concert drew to a close, Isaacson quoted Sondheim who answered an interviewer’s question about what he hoped his legacy would be. “Oh, I just would like the shows to keep getting done. Whether on Broadway, or in regional theaters, or schools or communities, I would just like the stuff to be done. Just done and done and done and done and done.”

With a concert like “A Little Sondheim Music,” The Muny and the Symphony have ensured that at least one of those done’s was accomplished – and done to perfection. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Featured Photo: Ben Whiteley, Michael Baxter, Nicolas Valdez, Bryonha Marie, Ben Davis, Matthew Scott, Emily Skinner.. Photo by Julie Merkel.

Matthew Scott in rehearsal. Photo by Julie Merkel.

Collaborative Concert “A Little Sondheim Music” Oct 2. at Powell Hall

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and The Muny announced details about their latest collaboration: the upcoming concert honoring the late Stephen Sondheim, A Little Sondheim Music on Sunday, October 2, at 3:00pm. Sondheim, who passed away in November 2021 at age 91, is credited with reinventing the American musical, both as a lyricist and composer, throughout his prolific career.

Hosted by Mike Isaacson, Artistic Director and Executive Producer of The Muny, with musical staging by Michael Baxter, and conducted by Muny veteran Ben Whiteley, the concert includes selections from many of Sondheim’s most beloved musicals, including Merrily We Roll AlongSondheim On SondheimInto the WoodsFolliesA Little Night MusicCompany, and Sweeney Todd. All lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim, with various arrangers and orchestrators.

Performing with the SLSO are several veteran theater performers, whose credits include Broadway musicals, West End productions, Muny productions, television, and more: Ben Davis, Bryonha Marie, Matthew Scott, Emily Skinner, and Elizabeth Stanley. Broadway veteran and St. Louis native Ken Page also makes a special appearance.

Collaborations between the two organizations date back to at least 1919, when the SLSO provided entertainment for patrons of The Muny during summer performances including Robin Hood and The Mikado. The tradition of collaboration returned in 1994 when the SLSO performed on The Muny stage in a celebration concert titled “Gateway to the Gold,” a salute to the U.S. Olympic Festival. The SLSO and The Muny last performed together in 2018 as part of The Muny’s centennial celebration.

Tickets are on sale now for this unique concert partnership between two of St. Louis’ most storied and celebrated arts institutions. Tickets can be purchased by visiting slso.org or by calling the SLSO Box Office at 314-534-1700.

Mike Isaacson

A Little Sondheim Music: The Muny and SLSO Celebrate Stephen Sondheim

Sunday, October 2, 2022, 3:00pm

Ben Whiteley, conductor

Ben Davis, vocals
Bryonha Marie, vocals
Matthew Scott, vocals
Emily Skinner, vocals
Elizabeth Stanley, vocals
With special appearance by Ken Page

Mike Isaacson, host

Artist Bios:

Ben Davis recently received critical acclaim as Sweeney Todd in the Muny’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Davis received a Tony Honor for his work as Marcello in Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of La Boheme. His extensive credits, spanning from Broadway to London, include Encores! Call Me Madam opposite Carmen Cusack, Dear Evan Hansen, Violet, A Little Night MusicLes MisérablesThe Sound of Music, Kiss Me Kate for the BBC at London’s Royal Albert Hall and NBC’s, Annie Live. Concert credits include Philly Pops, RTÉ Orchestra, Tanglewood, Caramoor, and many others.

Bryonha Marie

Bryonha Marie has rapidly established herself as one of the brightest young stars currently on Broadway and in the classical crossover arena. Best known for her tour de force Broadway performance in Prince of Broadway, a career retrospective of the work of Harold Prince, Marie has also thrilled Broadway audiences as Serena in Porgy & Bess. Other Broadway credits include After Midnight (featured and principal cover for Patti LaBelle, Toni Braxton, k.d. lang, and Fantasia), the revival of Ragtime (Sarah’s Friend), and The Book of Mormon.

Matthew Scott has performed as Adam Hochberg in An American In Paris on Broadway and the National Tour; Sondheim On Sondheim with Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams; and A Catered AffairJersey Boys, and Grand Horizons. On the West End he has performed as Lee in I Loved Lucy at the Arts Theatre. Regional credits include The Light In The Piazza (Barrymore Award); Saturday NightBeachesCompanySide by Side by SondheimChaplin (San Diego Critics Nomination), A Wonderful Life, RagtimeMy Fair LadyCarouselWest Side Story (Kevin Kline Award Nomination), Legally BlondeSwing!Les MiserablesSunset Boulevard, and Mamma Mia.

Emily Skinner has established herself as one of Broadway’s most engaging and versatile performers. She was most recently seen in Barrington Stage’s production of A Little Night Music where she received rave reviews for her fresh take on Desiree Armfeldt. Previously she appeared in the Broadway-bound musical Once Upon a One More Time at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, and on Broadway as Georgia Holt, Cher’s Mother, in The Cher Show.

Heralded as one of the “Breakout Stars of 2020” by The New York Times, Elizabeth Stanley received Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, and a Grammy Award for her recent performance as Mary Jane Healy in the musical Jagged Little Pill, inspired by the music of Alanis Morissette, book by Diablo Cody, and directed by Diane Paulus. Stanley has dazzled Broadway audiences as Claire De Loone in the revival of On the Town (Drama Desk Nomination), Dyanne in Million Dollar Quartet, Allison in Cry Baby, and April in the Tony Award-winning revival of Company.

Ken Page is a St. Louis native with a career spanning over 45 years. He is most widely known as the voice of “Oogie Boogie” in the Tim Burton/Disney film The Nightmare Before Christmas and has recreated his role in sold out concerts live to film at The Hollywood Bowl on four occasions as well as at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, Tokyo, Glasgow, London (with the London Philharmonic Orchestra), and Dublin. Broadway/UK credits include Guys & DollsAin’t Misbehavin’ (Emmy-winning NBC special, Drama Desk Award-Best Actor, Grammy Award), Cats as Old Deuteronomy (Original Broadway Cast, London Video Cast, Grammy Award), The WizAin’t Nothin’ But the BluesWizard of OzChildren of Eden (London West End Original Cast), My One and Only (London Palladium), Mr. Wonderful (Theatre Royal Drury Lane), and The Little Mermaid (Hollywood Bowl).

SLSO

About the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

Celebrated as a leading American orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is the second-oldest orchestra in the country, marking its 143rd year with the 2022/2023 season and its fourth with Music Director Stéphane Denève. The SLSO maintains its commitment to artistic excellence, educational impact, and community collaborations, honoring its mission of enriching lives through the power of music.

The SLSO serves as a convener of individuals, creators, and ideas, and is committed to building community through compelling and inclusive musical experiences. As it continues its longstanding focus on equity, diversity, inclusion, and access, the SLSO embraces its strengths as a responsive, nimble organization, while investing in partnerships locally and elevating its presence globally. For more information, visit slso.org.

About The Muny

The Muny’s mission is to enrich lives by producing exceptional musical theatre, accessible to all, while continuing its remarkable tradition in Forest Park. The country’s largest outdoor musical theatre produces seven world-class musicals each year and welcomes over 400,000 theatregoers over our seven-show season. Now celebrating 104 seasons in St. Louis, The Muny remains one of the premier institutions in musical theatre. 

The Muny

By CB Adams

 Whether you’re a die-hard Muny season ticket holder, a Stephen Sondheim devotee, someone attracted to a dark Dickensian tale about a murderous Victorian barber, someone seeking a great night of musical theater, or anything in between, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a must-see.

Fresh off the heels (or should we say umbrella) of “Mary Poppins” comes a show with a wholly different cut. It’s populated with hordes of the great unwashed, a steampunk-inspired set, love songs sung to razors and more dead bodies on stage than a Greek tragedy. And if that’s not enough, add in the music and lyrics by Sondheim (one of his greatest showpieces). Who else could have created a toe-tapping sing-along about meat pies made with human flesh?

“Sweeney Todd” originally opened in 1979 and, after sweeping the Tony Awards, has since grown into one of Broadway’s top-ten musicals – emphasis on musical because 80 percent of this show is sung. It is just now making its Muny premiere after a two-year pandemic-induced delay. It is definitely worth the wait.

Photo by Julia Merkle

This a muscular “go big or go home” production. Rob Ruggiero, director, and Mike Isaacson, artistic director and executive producer, leveraged their many talents and definitely chose the go-big option. They take full advantage of the Muny’s automated stage with its performer lifts, turntable and scenery wagons. A tip of the hat also goes to Jessica Hartman, associate director and musical staging, and James Moore, musical director, for their talents.

One of the challenges of “Sweeney Todd” is presenting the violence and carnage, which includes numerous throat slashings. The bloodletting is cleverly and effectively portrayed through lighting (thanks to design by John Lasiter) rather than with fountains of fake blood.  

As befits the big production values, this “Sweeney Todd” requires – and delivers – a powerful principal cast. Tony nominee Carmen Cusack, an audience favorite, plays the crafty, ambitious Mrs. Lovett. Cusack’s voice is equal to Ben Davis’s booming Sweeney Todd. Davis achieves a Todd who is complex, wounded and angry, and can still fill the stage with a larger-than-life presence. Julie Hanson’s bawdy Beggar Woman weaves throughout the scenes like an annoying fly with a Cockney accent, while Stephen Wallen’s corpulent The Beadle waddles about like an officious toady in service to Robert Cuccioli’s imperious, love-struck lech, Judge Turpin.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Even a slasher show like “Sweeney Todd” has a love story at its heart. Riley Noland plays Johanna with a thin high voice that befits her role as captive and victim. Her duet with Jake Boyd as sailor boy/love interest Anthony Hope is an extended highlight of this production. Though the two interact mostly from afar, their love and attraction is palpable.

Lincoln Clauss’s Tobias Ragg is a standout. The Ragg character evolves from wig-wearing hawker of snake-oil hair tonic to sprite-like table server and finally to traumatized avenger. Clauss has the acting and vocal range to match.

This production also makes full use of a large ensemble chorus with a panoply of tatty, bedraggled characters who introduce and frame Sweeney Todd’s descent from a cruelly treated barber into a lusty lasher and ultimately tragic victim of his own revengeful scheming. And, there haven’t been this many raised fists on the Muny stage since “Les Misérables” was in town.

The ensemble sings the last chorus at the conclusion of “Sweeney Todd,” but it’s the audience, walking toward the exits and excitedly talking about this production’s wow factor, that gets the last word and best positive review.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

The Muny presents “Sweeney Todd” July 16 – 22 at 8:15 p.m. nightly on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For tickets or more information, visit: www.muny.org.

Photo by Phillip Hamer
The cast of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Phillip Hamer

The Muny announced today that Ben DavisCarmen Cusack and Robert Cuccioliwill star in the musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, July 16-22, 2022.

The Muny Premiere is directed by Rob Ruggiero, with musical staging by associate director Jessica Hartman, music direction by James Moore and Michael Horsley serving as associate music director. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is proudly sponsored by Missouri Lottery.

“These extraordinary artists in these iconic roles will be thrilling,” said Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson. “I cannot wait to see them our Muny premiere of this musical masterpiece.”

Ben Davis

BEN DAVIS (Sweeney Todd) Muny: 1776Guys and DollsJesus Christ SuperstarOklahoma!; Spamalot and South Pacific.

Tony Honor (Ensemble) for his work in Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of La Bohème (Marcello).

NYC: Lady in the Dark (NY City Center Encores!), Call Me Madam opposite Carmen Cusack, Dear Evan Hansen, Violet, A Little Night Music, Les Misérables and Thoroughly Modern Millie.

National tour: The Sound of Music and Spamalot. Other favorites include Kiss Me, Kate for the BBC at London’s Royal Albert Hall and Kurt Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday opposite Kelli O’Hara and Victor Garber at Lincoln Center (recorded live) and in concert opposite Ms. O’Hara with Ted Sperling.

TV/Film: NBC’s Annie Live!Chicago Fire, Law & Order: SVUWoman in the Window, Boogie, The Magic Flute (directed by Kenneth Branagh), A Hand of Bridge, Blue Bloods, 30 Rock and Numb3rs.

Concerts: Philly Pops, RTÉ Orchestra, Tanglewood, Caramoor and many others.

Davis has been nominated for three St. Louis Theater Circle Awards — for “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma” and “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” at the Muny.

Carmen Cusack

CARMEN CUSACK (Mrs. Lovett) Broadway: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star (Tony Award nomination), Flying Over Sunset (Clare Boothe Luce).

Streaming/Film: Facebook series, Sorry For Your Loss (recurring opposite Janet McTeer and Elizabeth Olsen), TriStar’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (opposite Tom Hanks).

Cusack studied opera at the University of North Texas, which gave her its first honorary baccalaureate degree in 2018

ROBERT CUCCIOLI (Judge Turpin) Muny: 42nd Street. Broadway: Jekyll & Hyde (Tony Award nomination, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, FANY and Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Awards), Les Misérables and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Some favorite off-Broadway credits include A Touch of the Poet, The White Devil, Caesar and Cleopatra (Caesar), And the World Goes ‘Round (Outer Critics Circle Award), Rothschild & Sons (London’s Offie nomination), Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and White Guy on The Bus.

Robert Cuccioli

Robert has performed at such notable regional theatres as The Guthrie, Paper Mill Playhouse, The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ, Shakespeare Theatre Company (Lorenzaccio, Helen Hayes nomination), McCarter Theatre Center, George Street Playhouse, Ford’s Theatre (1776, Helen Hayes nomination).

Television: The Sinner, Elementary, White Collar, Sliders, Baywatch, Guiding Light. Film: Celebrity, The Stranger, The Rest of Us, Impossible Monsters, Columbus on Trial.

About the show:
The Broadway legend and American musical masterpiece makes its Muny debut. Set in 19th century London, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has captivated audiences around the world with its murderous melodies and a haunting tale of love, revenge and hilarious mayhem.

Considered to be one of composer Stephen Sondheim’s greatest showpieces, this eight-time Tony Award-winning musical offers both thrills and laughs and is guaranteed to be an unforgettable night at The Muny.
 
The Telsey Office is the official casting partner for The Muny. Full casting will be announced at a later date.

The Muny’s 2022 Season includes Chicago (June 13-19), Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot (June 22-28), Disney and Cameron Macintosh’s Mary Poppins (July 5-13), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (July 16-22), Legally Blonde, The Musical (July 25-31), The Color Purple (August 3-9) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (August 12-18).

Season tickets are currently on sale. Single tickets will be available beginning May 23. Muny gift cards for the 104th season are now available online and at The Muny Box Office. For more information, visit muny.org or call (314) 361-1900

By Lynn Venhaus
The sights and sounds of nights gone by are such a welcome sentimental journey on the exciting new online Muny Mondays.

But the variety show is not all a “Remember When” montage, and that is what sets it apart. With a fresh batch of pixie dust, the Muny’s second episode of its smash hit Summer Variety Hour Live more than met expectations after such a sensational series launch July 20.

Rob McClure and Maggie Lakis

If you were curious as to how they could top the inaugural show, now that we know the formula, one look at the lineup beforehand answered that quickly. Tony nominee Taylor Louderman singing live under the Culver Pavilion! Tony nominee and fan favorite Rob McClure, versatile veteran of six Muny shows, singing “Suddenly Seymour” with his wife Maggie Lakis, who has been in two Muny musicals, from their home in Philadelphia. McClure’s Muny debut was “Little Shop of Horrors” in 2011, so that was fitting. The cast of 2017’s spectacular “The Little Mermaid,” lead by Commodore Primous III as Sebastian, reuniting to sing a buoyant “Under the Sea.” I mean, the deck was stacked.

The best way to describe the ebb and flow of the carefully curated selection of acts is to compare it to a multi-course gourmet dinner especially crafted to include favorite dishes, comfort food, bold choices and unique taste treats, every bite bursting with flavor.

When the “Wow” factors were unveiled — those unforgettable Muny moments that you will always recall with awe, so grateful to have experienced it in person – they blew me away. It isn’t hard to pick five, ten or 20 out of your head if you are a regular. (We probably share some of the same ones – we’ll have to compare notes).

And this supersonic flash came from two performers I saw in ensembles but did not know their names: Nkeki Obi-Melekwe and Chloe O. Davis. I will never forget them now.

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe

Nkeki soared singing “If You Knew My Story” from “Bright Star” during her time, a selection to reinforce color-blind casting. Nkeki, a Michigan graduate, appeared in the Muny’s 2017 “All Shook Up” and went on to play Tina Turner in “Tina the Musical” in London’s West End in April 2019, then move to Broadway in October.

If you are unfamiliar with “Bright Star,” the musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, it came out the same year “Hamilton” did and lost the Tony Award for Best Musical to the landmark show in 2016.

Chloe O. Davis, a dancer who grew up in St. Louis and was in “All Shook Up” and “The Wiz” in recent years, was featured in “My Tribute to Black Broadway and Black Choreography: I Thrive Now Because You Dared Then,” a dance she conceived and choreographed.

As she used Forest Park as her stage, she gave us a history lesson that stirred “all the feels.” She created the styles of famous black choreographers, using audio and visual clips in addition to her dance moves – East St. Louis’ international icon Katherine Dunham, George Faison, Debbie Allen, Hope Clarke, Gregory Hines, Donald Byrd, Bill T. Jones and Camille A. Brown among them.

Chloe O Davis

Moving. Powerful. Elegant. Truly a shining moment.

A delightful song-and-dance interlude was courtesy of three dynamos Maya Bowles, Trevor Michael Schmidt and Gabi Stapula, whose high-spirited “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” from “Sweet Charity” captured our anxiety and their eagerness to get back to the business of entertaining. These chorus gypsies reminded us how ensemble cohesiveness is so important to any big splashy musical.

Gabi also works with the Muny Teens, and their fun-loving mashup of “Bring On the Monsters” from “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” and “Drive It Like You Stole It” from “Sing Street” again showcased how talented some local students are – and their sunny dispositions. I’m a big fan of the 2016 movie “Sing Street,” which is writer-director John Carney’s third film about the transforming power of music (“Once” and “Begin Again”), and its stage adaptation was set to open on Broadway in April after rave reviews off-Broadway.

The power ‘hour’ also featured behind-the-scenes stories about what’s happening at The Muny, including being able to pull off the stunning fireworks at the Centennial Gala, and the amusing game show throwback Munywood Squares. With interesting fun facts, hosted by Gordon Greenberg and featuring nine Muny performers in the Zoom grid,  including E. Faye Butler, J. Harrison Ghee, Ann Harada, Raymond J. Lee, Vicki Lewis, Steve Rosen, Jeffrey Schecter, John Scherer and Christopher Sieber. This week’s good sport contestants were photographer Phillip Hamer and Muny company manager Sue Greenberg. Fun remembering the raccoon who waddled on to the stage in “The Addams Family” in 2014!

Taylor Louderman

On an intermittent rainy night, star Taylor Louderman was accompanied by four socially distanced musicians, to sing live the power ballad “Astonishing” from “Little Women.” Always nice to include a female empowerment song, this one from Louisa May Alcott’s timeless and timely heroine, Jo March. From Bourbon, Mo., 60 miles southwest of St. Louis, Taylor went from Muny Teen to Tony nominee as Regina George in “Mean Girls.” She made her Broadway debut in 2012’s “Bring It On!,” has been in seven Muny shows and won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for last summer’s “Kinky Boots.” (And this year, finished her bachelor’s degree that she had started at Michigan in 2009 and was married five weeks ago to Brooks Toth).

The archival footage of past summer shows is a fond trip down memory lane, starting with Muny titans Beth Leavel and Ben Davis in 2015’s “Oklahoma!” Leavel, Tony winner for “The Drowsy Chaperone” and nominee for ‘The Prom,” is a frequent St. Louis Theater Circle Award nominee, winning for her Mamma Rose in 2018 “Gypsy.” Davis, seen last year as Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls,” has been nominated multiple times, and once joked during an interview that he is the ‘Susan Lucci’ of the Circle Awards.

Davis was in the now legendary production of “Spamalot” in 2013 as Sir Galahad. Host Mike Isaacson introduced “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which holds the distinction of being the most popular song at funerals, pointing out how weather affected the show. I remember that on opening night June 17, a steady rain was falling after torrential downpours for days preceding it. So, there was little opportunity to rehearse outdoors. The audience for the show opener of the 95th season was so eager to see this Muny premiere that we came in droves with our umbrellas — and were mightily rewarded.

It’s a night I’ll never forget. During the curtain call, actor John O’Hurley, playing King Arthur, stopped the show to introduce Monty Python founder and show creator Eric Idle! Whoops, cheers and thunderous applause! Everyone on their feet. I turned to my companion and said: “We are in the presence of a Python!” Oh, be still my heart. It was pure bliss – he led us in “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” after mentioning this was the largest audience to ever see the musical and he wanted to see if we could get in the Guinness Book of World Records for our sing-a-long.

Oh, what a night! I had the good fortune to interview John O’Hurley later that fall when he was touring as Billy Flynn in “Chicago,” and we had a pleasant conversation about that enchanted evening.

Another splendid memory was shared with the incredible “We’re in the Money” from the extraordinary 2016 production of “42nd Street,” choreographed by Denis Jones, St. Louis Theater Circle Award winner. That curtain call – go see it on YouTube – as the cast cascaded down a staircase will go down as my favorite (next to “A Chorus Line”) in Muny history.

All these elements are what make summer nights special at the Muny, and spotlighting the world-class talent – from the musical theater majors from the best schools in the country to the stars with Broadway credentials — who come together in Forest Park – is one I like to emphasize. Years ago, seasons were headlined by ‘names’ – mostly from TV – and while recognizable, I much prefer having the best talent possible give us their all on that stage. Drama geek that I am, I read all the bios and notice who returns to the Muny, who creates magic on the stage, or is given the part of a lifetime.

And in that spirit, the Summer Variety Hour Live emphasizes how many parts make each show happen.

And it is a warm, familiar embrace at a time we all need a hug.

On July 20, The Muny 2020 Summer Variety Hour Live! drew more than 30,000 viewers from across the U.S. and around the world. This total sets a new, record-breaking first in The Muny’s live-streaming history.

On July 27, we were connected by the calypso beat of newly crowned EGOT winner Alan Menken, the banjo picking of brilliant Steve Martin, the Britpop synthesizer of ‘80s New Wave, the zaniness of silly comic geniuses, homages to Busby Berkeley and Broadway chestnuts, the triumph of a ‘local’ small-town girl with a dream, sweetness, sincerity, showmances and people who think sitting under those stars in St. Louis is like coming home.

These shows (5 total, 3 left) are exclusive, one-time-only streams and will not be available after the Thursday night airing. The July 30 re-airing will include audio description and captions. The link is: youtube.com/themunytv

The Muny’s online 2020 season is sponsored by World Wide Technology. Episode 1 was made possible by US Bank and Episode 2 by Edward Jones. They announce the next lineup every Wednesday.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Broadway’s glorious past merges with The Muny’s dazzling state-of-the-art
present in “Guys and Dolls” for a sensational start to the second century that
bodes well for the future.
What an ideal show to show off the new stage and other upgrades made possible
through the Muny’s Second Century Campaign!

As impressive as the changes set out to be, all the spiffy
new elements made this endearing show sparkle – the redesigned stage allowed
the action flow smoothly, the sound was crystal clear (designers John Shivers
and David Patridge) and the lighting systems’ enhanced illumination by designer
Rob Denton and the expanded LED screens, with video designs by Nathan W.
Scheuer, were eye-catching. Director Gordon Greenberg was able to incorporate
the new downstage lifts into scenes. Overall, an A+ effort.

Besides the successful revelation, the weather was
tailor-made for the 101st season opener June 10. A crowd of 7,677 enjoyed
one of Broadway’s most delightful golden-age classics, filled with Frank
Loesser’s peppy and hummable musical numbers, sweet romance, and colorful
characters based on Damon Runyon’s short stories and given zip by the late
comedy writer Abe Burrows.

“Take Back Your Mink”Jaunty and joyous, “Guys and Dolls” combines hustling high rollers and honorable holy rollers in the bustle of the fabled Times Square, their intentions clashing when the gamblers want to be lucky and the evangelists want to save souls. Paul Tate dePoo III’s vibrant scenic design of neon signage and advertisements reflects a flashy bright lights, big city vibe that pops in every scene.

Once dubbed “the perfect musical comedy” by a critic and I
wholeheartedly agree, the Muny proved how evergreen the show can be, now in its
eighth time here and 15 years since the last one. The talent made sure this
first bicentennial production was a crowning achievement by integrating all the
new-fangled improvements seamlessly.

Zoe Vonder Haar, Orville Mendoza, Kennedy Holmes. Photo by Philip Hamer.Greenberg bathed this frothy concoction in the warm glow of
nostalgia while emphasizing the humor and elevating the romance. The high-spirited
cast injected it with zing through crisp and snappy movements, whether it was a
sharply choreographed number – those elastic dancers in “Crapshooters Dance”
and “Havana” made it fun — or the wise-guys singing Nathan Detroit’s praises
in “The Oldest Established.”
First-time Muny co-choreographers Lorin Latarro and Patrick O’Neill intertwined
different styles with energy and precision, and Music Director Brad Haak freshened
the songs, with arrangements by Larry Blank. Musicians were under a covered pit
for the first time, carrying the upbeat tempos well.
The creative team focused on the original 1950 roots and the rock-solid cast cheerfully
immersed themselves in this idiosyncratic world. One must accept its now dated
story as a period piece to fully appreciate the relationships. Calling women
“tomatoes” and “broads” is no longer acceptable, and no one in contemporary
times would, but this is from a bygone era – and displays how different men and
women roles were back then.

“Guys and Dolls” took Damon Runyon stories about New York
City from the 1920s and 30s, namely “The Idyll of Sarah Brown” and “Blood
Pressure,” with a nod to “Pick the Winner,” and radio comedy writer Abe Burrows
boosted Jo Swerling’s original script by giving the distinctive characters
Runyon’s unique vernacular, a mix of formal speech with slang. Damon, a
newspaperman and sportswriter, favored writing dialogue for gamblers, hustlers,
actors and gangsters.

However, this Runyonland appears more innocent. Detroit, the hapless but lovable mug behind the biggest crap game in NYC, keeps his adorable girlfriend Adelaide waiting for him to marry her after 14 years. The prim and proper Sarah Brown falls in love with the suave Sky Masterson in an opposites-attract storyline.

The script makes all of this seem logical and then throws in merry men named Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie, and it’s a surefire winner, especially with Kevin Cahoon hilarious as Harry the Horse and so is Brendan Averett as Big Jule.

From the first bars of the opening number “Fugue for
Tinhorns” to “The Happy Ending” finale, this cast connects with each other, and
ultimately, the audience.

As the sophisticated ladies man Sky Masterson, Ben Davis is
a welcome presence on the Muny stage, continuing his successful run of classic
male leads after Curly in “Oklahoma!” and Emile in “South Pacific.” He has
palpable chemistry with Brittany Bradford, who is one of the best Sarah Browns
I’ve ever seen (sometimes, the actors playing these different types don’t gel,
but this pair does). Their clashing couple delivers velvety-smooth ballads.

Bradford is quite a special talent, genuine in acting and a
splendid soprano. Her breakout number, “If I Were a Bell,” shows her
versatility. Their “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” superbly blends their
voices, another standout moment, and his sleek “My Time of Day” rendition was
terrific.

Davis propelled “Luck Be a Lady” to be one of the evening
highlights, aided by the crackerjack ensemble.

St. Louisan Kendra Kassebaum lights up the stage as Miss
Adelaide, and wow, what a home-grown triple threat. Bubbly and bouncy, she displays
impeccable comic timing in her fully dimensional lived-in performance.

She’s a fitting and funny foil for wacky Nathan, well-played by Jordan Gelber. Their “Sue Me” was on point, and “Adelaide’s Lament” is confident and comical. She leads the Hot Box Girls in a vivacious “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink.” (Tristan Raines’ costumes fit each role appropriately, but those purple-sequin gowns draped with the gray furs are stunning.)

Kassebaum and Bradford are a dynamic duo in “Marry the Man
Today” (just don’t wince at those lyrics).

The best scene, the second act showstopper that puts its indelible stamp on “Guys and Dolls,” is “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” A marvel of movement and pure jubilation, this version is made even more special by the surprise appearance of Kennedy Holmes, the Muny Kid who placed fourth on “The Voice” in 2018, belting out the usual General Cartwright solo. (Zoe Vonder Haar has replaced Doreen Montalvo as General Cartwright),

Orville Mendoza fits, well, nicely, as Nicely-Nicely
Johnson, who leads the number, and is dandy in his duet with Jared Gertner as
Benny in the title number “Guys and Dolls.”

As Arvide Abernathy, Ken Page has a twinkle in his eye and adds
poignancy to the “More I Cannot Wish You” number sung to his granddaughter,
Sarah. This is his 41st appearance at the Muny – and little-known
fact, he played Nicely-Nicely in the 1976 Broadway revival.

The musical has been revived two more times, in 1992 and
2009, with the 1992 version starring Nathan Lane and Faith Prince the most
acclaimed, winning four Tony Awards including Best Revival and running until 1995,
tallying 1,143 performances. The original “Guys and Dolls” won five Tony Awards
in 1951, including Best Musical, and has been a favorite among regional, school
and community groups for decades.

That renowned 1992 version’s spunk is evident in this Muny
production, but the cast makes it their own. They put a fresh sheen on the
characters, imbuing them with heart and humor, and it never sags.

This production is worth rejoicing about, starting out the
summer in swell fashion.

The Muny presents “Guys and Dolls” June 10 – 16 nightly at 8:15 p.m. in Forest Park. For tickets or more information, visit www.muny.org

Photos by Phillip Hamer.

Ken Page to Star in his 41st Muny Show

The Muny announced today its complete cast, design and production team for Guys and Dolls, the first show of its second century, June 10 – 16. Guys and Dolls is proudly sponsored by Wells Fargo Advisors.

“We soar into our second century with one of the most beloved musicals of the last century,” said Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson. “I can’t wait to see this amazing production on our beautiful new stage. Luck be a producer, indeed.”

Joining the previously announced Ben Davis (Sky Masterson), Brittany Bradford (Sarah Brown), Jordan Gelber (Nathan Detroit) and Kendra Kassebaum (Miss Adelaide) are Ken Page (ArvideAbernathy), Doreen Montalvo (General Cartwright), Orville Mendoza (Nicely-Nicely Johnson), Jared Gertner (Benny Southstreet), Brendan Averett (Big Jule), Kevin Cahoon (Harry the Horse) and Rich Pisarkiewicz (Lt. Brannigan). A high-rolling ensemble completes this cast, including Calvin Cooper, Darien Crago, Colby Dezelick, Tyler Eisenreich, Whitney G-Bowley, Berklea Going, Julie Hanson, Jeff Kuhr, Alicia Lundgren, Erin N. Moore, Jevares Myrick, Michael Santomassimo, Michaeljon Slinger, Matthew Steffens, Keith Tyrone, Amy Van Norstrand, Jerry Vogel and Sharrod Williams. The company will also be joined by the Muny Kid and Teen youth ensemble.

As previously announced, Guys and Dolls is directed by Gordon Greenberg and co-choreographed by Lorin Latarro and Patrick O’Neill with music direction by Brad Haak.

This production includes scenic design by Paul Tate dePoo III, costume design by Tristan Raines, lighting design by Rob Denton, sound design by John Shivers and David Patridge, video design by Nathan W. Scheuer and wig design by Leah J. Loukas. Production stage manager is Nancy Uffner.

Ben Davis

BEN DAVIS (Sky Masterson) Muny: Jesus Christ Superstar (Pilate), Oklahoma! (Curly); South Pacific (Emile), Spamalot (Galahad). Ben was most recently seen as Cosmo Constantine in New York City Center’s Encores! Call Me Madam, opposite Carmen Cusack. Broadway: 2003 Tony Honor for La Bohème (Marcello), Dear Evan Hansen (Larry), Violet (Preacher), A Little Night Music, Les Misérables(Javert and Enjolras), Thoroughly Modern Millie (Trevor Graydon). Tours: The Sound of Music (Georg von Trapp), Spamalot (Galahad). Regional: Kiss Me, Kate (Fred/Petruchio) at The 5th Avenue Theatre. UK: BBC Proms Kiss Me, Kate (Fred/Petruchio). Concerts: Philly Pops, Boston Pops, LA Philharmonic, RTÉ and many others. Film/TV: Blue Bloods, A Hand of Bridge, The Magic Flute, 30 Rock, Numb3rs. www.benjaminjaydavis.com

Actor | New York | Headshot| Brittany Bradford

BRITTANY BRADFORD (Sarah Brown) Muny debut! Brittany was recently seen in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Merrily We Roll Along, staged by the critically-acclaimed Fiasco Theater. She made her Broadway debut last fall as Ophelia in Bernhardt/Hamlet opposite Janet McTeer. Additional credits: For Colored Girls… (Public Theater), Flyin’ West (Westport Country Playhouse), Family Resemblance (Eugene O’Neill), The Profane and Taming of the Shrew (Chautauqua Theater Company), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Ten Thousand Things Theater), Neighbors, AvenueQ and Next to Normal (Mixed Blood Theatre), Ragtime and Stick Fly (Park Square Theatre). 2018 graduate of The Juilliard School, Group 47. Credits: Father Comes Home from the Wars, Hoodoo Love, Triumph of Love, King Lear, Cymbeline, Christina Martinez and The Marriage of Bette and Boo. Co-Founder of HomeBase Theatre Collective. www.brittany-bradford.com

JORDAN GELBER (Nathan Detroit) Muny debut! Broadway: Sunday in the Park with George, Elf the Musical (Buddy), All My Sons, Avenue Q (original cast, special Outer Critics Circle Award). Off-Broadway: John Guare’s Nantucket Sleigh Ride (Lincoln Center Theater), Mike Leigh’s 2000 Years, Avenue Q, The Joke, Birth and After Birth. TV: Elementary, Mr. Robot, Mindhunter, Insatiable, Boardwalk Empire, Nurse Jackie, The Good Wife, Rescue Me, Ugly Betty, first three Law & Order series (recurring on SVU), The Sopranos, 100 Centre Street. Film: (upcoming) The Kitchen, Bleed for This, Dark Horse, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Everyday People (IFP/Gotham Award nominee for Breakthrough Acting), Riding in Cars With Boys, Changing Lanes. BA, Stanford University; MFA, NYU Tisch Graduate Acting (2000 Laura Pels Award). www.JordanGelber.com

KENDRA KASSEBAUM (Miss Adelaide) Muny: A Chorus Line (Val). 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 nominee). Other New York: The Receptionist (MTC) and the Tony Award-winning, Grammy-nominated production of Assassins, both directed by Joe Mantello. Kendra made her Broadway debut in Rent. For the Roundabout, 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, ACT, Ordway and Florida Stage. Film: The Other Woman (with Natalie Portman and Lisa Kudrow).

Ken Page will be in his 41st Muny show

KEN PAGE(Arvide Abernathy) is proud to be part of the 101st season of The Muny. This will be his forty-first show on the stage and his fourth year as “the voice” of the theatre. Ken made his Broadway debut as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in the all-black revival of Guys and Dolls, receiving the Theatre World Award for his performance. This year, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The St. Louis Arts & Education Council and directed a sold-out run of Love, Linda with Max & Louie Productions. Recent/upcoming: live-to-film concerts of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (Sebastian) at the Hollywood Bowl,Grumpy Old Men (La Mirada Theatre) and the UK live-to-film tour re-creating his role of Oogie Boogie in The Nightmare Before Christmas. 

DOREEN MONTALVO (General Cartwright) Muny debut! Broadway: On Your Feet! (Gloria, original Broadway cast); In the Heights (original Broadway cast, Drama Desk Award). Off-Broadway: Curvy Widow (Heidi, Westside Theatre), Giant (Lupe, The Public Theater), Flashdance The Musical (Louise), Mamma Mia! (Tanya); In the Heights (Camila, Westport Country Playhouse), American Mariachi(Denver Center/Old Globe), La Lupe (Lupe, Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre), In the Heights (37 Arts), Havana Under the Sea (Cecilia, INTAR Theatre). TV/Film: Law & Order, Elementary, Madam Secretary, The Tale of Timmy Two Chins, Smash, All My Children, One Life to Live. Recordings: American Soul/Latin Heart, Disney’s Moana soundtrack. Live: 54 Below, Joe’s Pub, The Metropolitan Room, The Duplex, Green Room 42. www.doreenmontalvo.com

ORVILLE MENDOZA (Nicely-Nicely Johnson) is thrilled to be back at The Muny where he got his Equity card 25 years ago in The King and I. Other Muny: Miss Saigon (2001), The King and I (2006), Godspell (2009). Broadway: Peter and the Starcatcher, Pacific Overtures. Most recently, the world premiere of The Heart of Rock and Roll (Old Globe, coming to Broadway). Previously, he toured with Small Mouth Sounds (Ars Nova). Off-Broadway: Found (Atlantic Theater Company), Pacific Overtures, Passion (Classic Stage Company); Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens and Road Show all at The Public Theater/NYSF. He’s worked all across the U.S. from La Jolla Playhouse to Long Wharf Theatre. TV: The Blacklist, Law & Order: CI and many commercials. Drama Desk nominee and Barrymore Award winner. www.orvillemendoza.com

JARED GERTNER (Benny Southstreet) Muny debut! Jared is best known for playing Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon on Broadway, on the first national tour and in London (Olivier nomination). Other New York: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Broadway) and Ordinary Days (off-Broadway, premiere). Regional: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Cincinnati Playhouse, Goodspeed, The Fulton, Cape Playhouse and Sacramento Music Circus. Television: Mom, Modern Family, 2 Broke Girls, Supernatural, Superior Donuts, How I Met Your Mother, Marvel’s Agent Carter, Ugly Betty, The Good Wife, American Dad, Family Guy and the popular Broadway-themed web series, Submissions Only. Jared also starred in an NBC pilot called How We Live. Film: Nightmare Cinema(upcoming), Smallfoot and Pup Star. Education: NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Twitter: @JaredGertner Instagram: @Jaredgertner1

BRENDAN AVERETT (Big Jule) is excited to make his Muny debut. Off-Broadway: Hamlet (Waterwell), Sam and Dede (Custom Made Theatre/59E59), Titus Andronicus (NY Shakespeare Exchange), The Killer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (TFANA), As You Like It (Shakespeare in the Park), Massacre: Sing to Your Children (Rattlestick), Hamlet (Gallery Players), Passion Play (Epic Theatre Ensemble). Tours: Guys and Dolls. Regional: The Comedy of Errors, Kiss Me, Kate (Hartford Stage), Romeo and Juliet(Actors Theatre of Louisville), Of Mice and Men (Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park), Cyrano de Bergerac, The Tempest (Theatricum Botanicum), Henry V (California Shakespeare Company), Bloody Poetry, The Alchemist (Everyman Theatre), Measure for Measure, Guys and Dolls, The Swanne: Pt. III(Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada). TV/Film: Law & Order: SVU, Trapped in the Closet, Blossom. Former Associate Producer for NYSX’s The Sonnet Project.

KEVIN CAHOON (Harry the Horse) Muny: The Wizard of Oz and Spamalot. Broadway: The Wedding Singer, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Lion King, The Rocky Horror Show revival and The Who’s Tommy(debut). Off-Broadway: original Hedwig and The Angry Inch, How I Learned to Drive (Second Stage), The Foreigner (Roundabout, Lortel nomination), The Shaggs (Playwrights Horizons), The Wild Party (Manhattan Theatre Club), Hair and Babes in Arms (NY City Center Encores!). Regional: The Old Globe, Guthrie, Williamstown. TV: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Glow (upcoming), Nurse Jackie, Elementary, NCIS, Modern Family, The Mentalist, The Good Wife, CSI, Odd Mom Out, Six Degrees, Black Box, The Royale, Law & Order (original/CI). Film: I Am Michael, Mars Needs Moms, The Thing About My Folks, Curse of The Jade Scorpion. Debut album: Doll (OutMusic Award).

RICH PISARKIEWICZ (Lt. Brannigan) Muny 101 marks Rich’s 38th season on the Muny boards, appearing in over 80 productions, including last season’s An Evening with the Stars and Annie. He has appeared regionally with The Fox Theatres (Atlanta and St. Louis), Dallas Summer Musicals, Kansas City Starlight, and locally with Stages St. Louis, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, The Black Rep, Westport Playhouse and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. He has also enjoyed working with the Variety Theatre in several productions, most recently The Wizard of Oz. Upcoming: Man of La Mancha (Stages St. Louis). 2019 is his 41st year in professional theatre beginning with 1776 at Summerstage in 1979.

Link for more information: muny.org/guys-and-dolls.

About the show:

Guys and Dolls is based on a story and characters of Damon Runyon with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. 

Considered by many to be the perfect musical comedy, Guys and Dolls gambles with luck and love during a time when Broadway was rampant with wise guys, mission girls and Lindy’s cheesecake. This all-time Broadway classic features a high-rolling score, including “Luck Be a Lady,” “If I Were a Bell” and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” With this Muny favorite, everyone’s a winner!

The seven shows in the 2019 Muny season are: Guys and Dolls (June 10 – 16), Kinky Boots (June 19 – 25), 1776 (June 27 – July 3), Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella (July 8 – 16), Footloose (July 18 – 24), Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (July 27 – August 2) and Roald Dahl’s Matilda (August 5 – 11). For more information, visit muny.org.  

Season and single tickets are currently on sale. Muny gift cards for the 101st season are available online and at The Muny Box Office. MetroTix is the only official online point-of-purchase vendor for The Muny. For more information, visit muny.org or call (314) 361-1900.