By Lynn Venhaus

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.

Sarah Bowden as Roxie Hart. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

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.”

J Harrison Ghee, Sarah Bowden. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

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.

Cell Block Tango. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

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.

Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, online at muny.org or by phone by calling (314) 361-1900 ext. 1550.

To stay connected virtually and to receive the latest updates, please follow The Muny on their social media channels, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The company of ‘Chicago.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor

A longtime Muny performer, Alex Prakken left his native St. Louis to grow his musical theater aspirations, but his heart is at home on the local stages that have meant so much to him.

Prakken will star alongside Mikaela Bennett in the eighth
installment of its off-season concert series, Muny Magic at The Sheldon, on
Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 5 and 6, at 7:30 p.m.

“The Muny is such a special place, not just for me, but for
many,” he said. “I always wanted to go to New York. And The Muny definitely
helped me to get to where I needed to be in singing, acting and dancing. And I
got to watch these phenomenal actors on that stage, work with them, and learn
from them.”
Prakken replaces Jason Gotay, who was cast as Che in the upcoming New York City
Encores! Production of “Evita” and had to withdraw. Gotay appeared as Prince
Topher in “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” as Prince Eric in “Disney’s
The Little Mermaid” and Jack in “Into the Woods” at The Muny.

“We’re so grateful to Alex for joining this always
joyous and magical night,” said Muny Artistic Director and Executive
Producer Mike Isaacson. “Alex thrilled audiences last season in 1776 and
his performance as Marius in Les Misérables remains a Muny favorite. I’m sure
he and Mikaela will make serious magic.”  

A former Muny Kid and Muny Teen, Prakken said he was
thrilled to return to the Muny as the Courier in “1776,” singing the signature
solo “Momma Look Sharp,” after an absence of six years.

“It was nice to be back for ‘1776,’” he said. “It’s such a
special song, such a special show. It really sticks with you.”

Alex Prakken as The Courier in “1776” at The Muny last season. Photo by Phillip Hamer. He had participated as the Courier in a concert version at
54 Below in New York City, which takes place every Fourth of July.

Prakken, a graduate of The John Burroughs School and
University of Michigan, was previously in a much heralded “Les Miserables” as
Maurius at the Muny in 2013.

“I’ll never forget that. I had never seen an audience so enamored
with a show,” he said. The audience leapt to its feet after “One Day More.”

“It was the perfect show for the Muny – on that big stage
with a big cast,” he said.

After that, he went on to the first national tour of
“Newsies” as Oscar Delancey and as Jack Kelly’s understudy as well as Davey’s,  stopping at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis.

“Playing the Fox was crazy. We spent a year playing in
really big houses, 2500-3000, but the Fox is practically double in size. It’s
the biggest one we played,” he said.

While growing up, The Fox was where he saw his first
touring shows.

“It was a shining beacon of theater, but I took it for
granted. It is a stunning theater, so freaking beautiful, big and cavernous.
Performing there, it really did feel majestic, very special,” he said.

He played Jack Kelly at La Mirada Playhouse in California,
and at the Paramount Theatre in Chicago. He has toured as Jesus in “Jesus
Christ Superstar” and as Roger in “Grease.”

Alex Prakken as Jack Kelly in “Newsies” at La Mirada PlayhouseNow living in New York City, Prakken said he’s been
fortunate to be working steadily, but enjoys returning home for a break around
the holidays. Since early May, “I’ve been going non-stop.”

His agent sends him out on auditions for things he may be
right for – “it’s about who they happen to be looking for,” he said. “It’s
often being at the right place at the right time. I’m starting to get noticed
by casting directors. It’s about knowing who they can trust.”

He and Bennett, who had never met before, were rehearsing
the week before the shows.

“She has a lovely voice, it gave me chills – really
spectacular,” he said.

Bennett played the title character in Rodger and
Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” last summer and is a graduate of The Juilliard
School, known for her work on stage and concert halls. She won a Lincoln Center
Award for Emerging Artists this year.

Her credits include Maria in “West Side Story” at the Lyric
Opera of Chicago and in concert performances at the BBC Proms, New York
Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Orchestra. She has appeared at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall.

She originated both the role of Norma in the off-Broadway
production of “Renascence” and the title role of Acquanetta at the Prototype
Festival.

Michael Baxter is directing the show and frequent Muny
music director Charlie Alterman is directing the music.
Prakken said they have come up with solos and duets to reflect their strengths,
the new season, Muny classics and shows they have been in around the country.

“What felt best for us,” he said. The timeless music of Leonard Bernstein, Harold Arlen, Jason Robert Brown and Rodgers and Hammerstein is among the selections. Bennett and Prakken will be accompanied by a trio: Charlie Alterman (music director and piano), Nick Savage (drums) and Vince Clark (bass).

The concert will feature Broadway hits including “If I Loved You” (“Carousel”), “How Could I Ever Know” (“The Secret Garden”), “One Second and A Million Miles” (“The Bridges of Madison County”) and a medley from “West Side Story.”

In addition to the performances, Isaacson will reveal the
line-up for the much-anticipated 2020 summer season, its 102nd.

“It’s a very exciting season next year,” Prakken said — while
not revealing anything.

“Mike is so supportive. There is a whole other level of
care at the Muny,” he said, noting that Isaacson comes to rehearsals, making
sure people have what they need to put on a good show.

“It’s just such a great place,” he said. “In St. Louis, it’s a cultural event. People come two and a half hours early to listen to music, watch the young people perform. I hope we can make a little bit of Muny Magic at the Sheldon. It’s really a knockout place.”

He has sung at the Sheldon before, too, for a senior recital.

“It was an awesome night,” he said. Muny Magic at The Sheldon is sponsored by The Kranzberg Arts Foundation.  The Sheldon is located at 3648 Washington Boulevard in St. Louis.

Tickets are available now and range from $25 to $50. For
more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.muny.org/munymagic or call
314-534-1111.

For more information about The Muny, visit muny.org

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
By wrapping up its Centennial Season with a sweet nostalgic slice of Americana, the Muny has tugged at our hearts and reminded us to treasure our traditions.
This “Meet Me in St. Louis” makeover is a richly textured tapestry significant to St. Louis – one that you can see and feel. With a freshly revised book and new orchestrations, the Muny has connected the ordinary Smith Family’s quaint story to emotionally resonate through the ties that bind us.
A tight-knit cast and tip-top crew wore their hearts on their sleeves opening night, offering a gift to the region that spends its summers in the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor theater. You could sense the love for our town onstage, backstage and in the audience.

The Smiths’ upper-middle class life at 5135 in Kensington Avenue was not different than countless others, but through their typical goings-on, they faced change, and that impending family transition from their comfortable routine to the uncertainty of a big metropolis is what drives their 1903-1904 story through seasons along the Mississippi River.
Sally Benson’s memoirs, “The Kensington Stories.” eventually became the beloved classic movie musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Even with its MGM-Hollywood pedigree, that unique turn-of-the-century site-specific history makes it ours alone – not Kansas City, Chicago or Indianapolis.
That civic pride resulted in the Muny presenting stage versions in 1960, 1965 and 1977 – before Broadway adapted it in 1989, and a variation has been staged four more times, including a dull one its last time in 2009.
The stage adaptation wasn’t special enough, and not even close in comparison to the movie. When the film opened in 1944, it became the studio’s biggest hit next to “Gone with the Wind” and nominated for four Oscars, including Best Song (“The Trolley Song”). Margaret O’Brien won a Juvenile Academy Award as Tootie. The film is now preserved in the National Film Registry (Library of Congress) and 10th on American Film Institute’s Greatest Movie Musicals in History list.
It’s closing line, “Right here in St. Louis,” became the Muny’s tagline for their 100th anniversary, and the show’s inclusion inevitable.
But this production has some surprises in store. To make this one memorable, Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson called on Gordon Greenberg to revamp the book by Hugh Wheeler. Greenberg is a veteran Muny director whose writing work includes the “Holiday Inn” Broadway adaptation.
He has inserted many local references to heighten the hometown feel. He had us right away when Grandpa talks about the St. Louis Cardinals beating the Chicago Cubs. Other mentions of neighborhoods and long-distance phone calls to Clayton were big crowd-pleasers.
No matter how corny you think the romantic entanglements are, the Smith kids’ excitement about seeing their hometown prepare to become the center of the universe is contagious.
The simple framework of children growing up is secondary to the time and place, as our forefathers are honored for their vision that included the biggest World’s Fair yet, and the first Summer Olympics in the U.S. And we continue to enjoy the fruits of those labors.

The world was watching when the Louisiana Purchase Exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. expansion under Thomas Jefferson. More than 60 countries and 43 states participated from April 30 to Dec. 1 in Forest Park and nearby locations. So many contributions of long-lasting impact came from those seven months in 1904, and the work preceding it.
That’s what director Marcia Milgrom Dodge brings out as the characters express love for the city and family, friends and neighbors during daily routines and holiday rituals.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (real-life married couple Stephen R. Buntrock and Erin Dilly) have five children: Rose, Esther, Alonzo Jr. “Lon,” Agnes and Tootie (Liana Hunt, Emily Walton, Jonathan Burke, Elle Wesley and Elena Adams, all in Muny debuts). Anna Smith’s father, retired doctor Grandpa Prophater (local legend Ken Page) lives with them. Alonzo Sr. is a lawyer and they live comfortably enough to afford a housekeeper, Katie (Kathy Fitzgerald).
This cast injected individual pizzazz into a show that’s still boxed in by the period’s social mores. Let’s face it, the schmaltz factor is high, and the two oldest girls’ boy troubles are trivial.
There is the potential to view the characters as spoiled in the way the older daughters maneuver the guys and bratty Tootie causes mayhem while they all whine about moving to New York City, but if they didn’t gripe, we wouldn’t have any dramatic conflict, would we? And the performers are winsome.
Rose’s intended fellow, the earnest Warren Sheffield, is well-played by Michael Burrell, and Dan DeLuca, as the proverbial boy-next-door John Truitt, matches Emily Walton’s adventurous zest as Esther.
Jonathan Burke is an impressive Lon Jr., getting ready for Princeton and dating the worldly Lucille Ballard (St. Louis regular Madison Johnson, looking swell in a Gibson hairstyle). He is a marvel of movement in the dance number, “The Banjo,” innovatively staged by choreographer Josh Walden. Jeff Jordan is a good sport as a gangly uncoordinated dance partner, Pee Wee Drummond.
Music Director Charlie Alterman glides through old standards and the stand-out numbers written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane – “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which Walton beautifully delivers.
An earlier song list was trimmed to thankfully cut the bloat, and John McDaniel’s new orchestrations provide some zing. McDaniel, a St. Louis native, is a Grammy and Emmy-winning composer, conductor, pianist and producer. He was the band leader on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show from 1996 to 2002 and has returned to conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra five times and worked on “Pirates!” during the Muny’s 2012 season.
They included a dandy song Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote but cut from the movie, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me.”

Supporting player Ben Nordstrom’s spotlight moment was delightful, as he sang “Under the Anheuser Bush” as the Christmas Ball band singer.
(Fun fact: That is a popular beer garden song commissioned by the brewery in 1903, and an instrumental version was used in the 1944 movie).
The vibrant vintage look sharpened the focus, with outstanding work by scenic designer Michael Schweikardt and video designer Matthew Young, who highlighted the bygone era with beautiful vistas.
Costume designer Tristan Raines and wig designer Leah J. Loukas immersed the players in exquisite detail. The youth ensemble’s Halloween costumes provided merriment as they scampered through the crowd.
Lighting designer Rob Denton spectacularly illuminated the World’s Fair, which elicited audible appreciation. Sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge captured the old-timey feel.
In two extraordinary moments, “Meet Me in St. Louis” crystallized the past, present and future of our crown jewels — Forest Park and The Muny, all in the shadow of our treasured landmarks.
The “Skinker’s Swamp” picnic scene, where video projection showed The Palace of Fine Art (now the St. Louis Art Museum) under construction, along with the Ferris Wheel, in a muddy field. Awestruck Esther and John rode that famous trolley to his baseball practice first.
The grand finale was breathtaking – as the anticipation of the World’s Fair built, to reveal the Smith Family standing on a bridge overlooking the Grand Basin, with thousands of festive lights. It was a vivid tableau that continued in a fireworks-festooned curtain call.
Sometimes, we see magic happen under the stars in Forest Park, just as our ancestors did in the 20th century. Hope about the future has been a running theme in all seven shows this season, and “Meet Me in St. Louis” became the cherry on top.
After the fireworks light up the sky for the last time Aug. 12, we move onto the second century.
Look around the park now – majestic remnants mark our heritage. It’s a stunning sight, recalling happy golden days of yore, as is the Muny’s love letter to the community we cherish.
This unabashedly sentimental production conjured up many personal memories and feelings about what Forest Park, the Muny and St. Louis mean to me. I don’t think I was alone in this regard, judging the audience’s reaction
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is presented from Aug. 4 to Aug. 12 nightly at 8:15 p.m. at The Muny in Forest Park. For more information or for tickets, visit www.muny.org.
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Photos by Phillip Hamer