By Lynn Venhaus
Sometimes, we see magic happen under the stars in Forest Park. This summer, we saw a different kind of Muny Magic – but enchanted evenings nonetheless.

It took a global pandemic for the Muny to achieve its greatest magic trick ever – they transformed our isolation into a community through a live variety special.

And they did it with such hard work and passion. Using modern technology, incredibly creative professionals and tip-top talent from coast to coast, it was a huge undertaking, which was obvious to anyone who tuned in for even a fraction of an episode.

For the fifth Summer Variety Hour Live! on Monday, Aug. 17, the Muny supersized the presentation and it was a splashy grand finale, tugging on our heartstrings in a big but intimate way. So much genuine emotion in new works, in memories and archival footage that reminded us how special our outdoor theatre is, the largest and oldest one in the country.

Seeing Muny mainstay Beth Leavel perform her showstopper “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy” (2018) with the view from the wings! My heart was bursting. Tari Kelly leading the ebullient “Forget About the Boy” in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (2012) and one of the all-time great musical theater numbers, ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from last year’s “Guys and Dolls,” with the surprise appearance by Kennedy Holmes to hit those high notes. I was grinning ear to ear. The Mission: Feel-Good was on!

Zoe Vonder Haar, Orville Mendoza and Kennedy Holmes in “Guys and Dolls” – Photo by Phillip Hamer

For five episodes, the Muny reinvigorated its treasure trove of tradition, 102 years strong, to provide virtual entertainment that filled the void of a cancelled season. The collaborative spirit on display was inspiring.

Let’s face it, the summer has been dismal, especially with rising coronavirus cases in our bi-state region. More things shut down and were postponed in a never-ending stream of disappointments in 2020. But as a gift to “the Muny family,” the management and creative teams conceived a way to connect us. We all felt it, whether tuning in on Monday or catching the rerun on Thursday from July 20 to Aug. 17 as the evening twilight faded.

For a brief shining moment, it seemed like old times. The 8:15 p.m. start was a constant to look forward to in an uncertain year during an unprecedented public health crisis. With Executive Producer and Artistic Director Mike Isaacson’s bold and unique concept, and his ability to attract the talent he did, each episode was a captivating mix of tempo and tone, under the direction of multi-talented Michael Baxter.

Colby Dezelick

What an emotional palette we experienced, touching on why we love the Muny, from veteran performer Colby Dezelick’s touching original song, “I Will Be Your Home” — with a behind-the-scenes video love letter dedicated to his Muny family, to sweet Jenny Powers describing her feelings about flying above the audience as Mary Poppins in 2013, and how the staff took such good care of her. Straight to the heart.

And while seeing up-and-coming talent do what they do best is always enjoyable, feeling their sheer joy in performing is blissful. Watching St. Louis native and Broadway performer Richard Riaz Yoder use his exceptional talents to dance “Broadway Melody” using the Muny as his canvas – tap-dancing for a time in sneakers! – was breathtaking.

So was jubilant Jack Sippel’s choreographed dance number, the cheery “You Can’t Stop the Beat!” from “Hairspray,” which was performed by 19 Muny alums and sung by Nasia Thomas, Muny vet and Broadway performer in “Beautiful,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and soon, the revival of “Caroline, or Change.”

In the 2017 production of “A Chorus Line,” director-choreographer Denis Jones used young versions of the dancers in certain scenes, to emphasize their dreams and drive. On Monday, they showed the wistful “At the Ballet” number, which was performed by Holly Ann Butler as Sheila, Bronwyn Tarboton as Maggie and Caley Crawford as Bebe, with little ballerinas in view.

As lump-in-the-throat as that song is, nothing can match the show’s curtain call for its spectacular finish, and they recreated it for The Muny Centennial Gala, complete with fireworks. Such a thrilling moment to revisit.

The energy, enthusiasm and talent of the Muny Teens and Kids each episode was another heart-tugger. Because six teens were graduating, they had a special senior sendoff: Michael Harp, Cate Phillips, Michael Lee Jr., Fiona Scott, Jack Deters and Caitlin Chau sang “Our Time” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” I have seen these kids grow up. Misty eyes.

“Worlds to change, and worlds to win Our turn, coming through.”

The Muny Kids’ adorable and confident youngsters mashed up “Come Alive” from the film “The Greatest Showman,” with songs by Oscar and Tony winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, with “A Little More Homework” from Jason Robert Brown’s “13.”

For comic relief, there was the fun “Munywood Squares” game show, good sports all, and jolly John Tartaglia reprising his Murray the Muny Raccoon schtick, making Isaacson laugh.

Mike Isaacson

Isaacson, who has been the visionary executive producer and artistic director since the 2012 season, named to the post in 2010, cares deeply about the Muny’s place in historic context and local lore, and with his Broadway experience, he’s able to give us quality casts, teams and a really dedicated staff.

Clearly wearing his heart on his sleeve as this summer’s host, he gave us something that we could enjoy on many levels and for many reasons. Isaacson has multiple Tony Awards and 24 Broadway shows and national tours to his credit. He makes things happen in a way that elevates the Muny in stature, boosting our civic pride, but also gains respect in the larger theatrical world. His reverence for the art form is obvious, and he has shown us, time and again, the possibilities of what the Muny can accomplish.

That connection that he spoke of, all the people who came together without hesitation, all the selfless devotion, a renewed sense of purpose – it felt very real and elicited a teary farewell.

I think, like “Field of Dreams,” Forest Park and the Muny are mystical places. After all, musical theatre is a constant in our lives, like baseball. We want to believe that in a time of everything turned upside down, of norms being shattered, that there exists a place we feel safe, happy, loved. That sharing theater and music brings us together like no other art form.

So, the Muny Variety Hour gave us the opportunity to be in the company of performers who love the Muny like it is a family, a home. That theme was repeated over and over. And that’s what we are craving in these anxious times.

And in Colby’s song: “When it’s dark, I’ll be the light.”

Beth Malone

Another almost spiritual song was the centuries-old tune and Muny season-ender tradition “Auld Lang Syne,” sung by Beth Malone, who accompanied herself on acoustic guitar. Beautiful and bittersweet.

The ties that bind us, recalling happy golden days of yore. “Meet Me in St. Louis” appeared again in the line-up – of course. Yes, it’s schmaltzy, but its inclusion of the 1904 World’s Fair, which has impacted our lives and region ever since those seven months, and the work preceding it, make it a nostalgic chestnut.

Married couple and Muny performers Erin Dilly and Stephen R. Buntrock sang a lovely duet, “You and I,” from their home. They appeared as Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the 2018 production, the Centennial season finale.

Maggie Kuntz, a Muny vet and two-time winner of the Best Actress Award from the St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards, sang the iconic “The Trolley Song” live from under the Culver Pavilion with polish and panache.

Dan De Luca and Emily Walton in “Meet Me in St. Louis” Photo by Phillip Hamer

And then in the sentimental sweet spot, they played “The Skinker’s Swamp” picnic scene featuring Emily Walton as Esther and Dan DeLuca as John Truitt. The video projection was The Palace of Fine Arts, now the St. Louis Art Museum, under construction in a muddy field.

How many times have we been in the shadow of our treasured landmarks?

The world was watching when the Louisiana Purchase Exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. expansion under Thomas Jefferson. More than 60 countries and 43 states participated from April 30 to Dec. 1 in Forest Park and nearby locations.

So, the Muny and Forest Park remain crown jewels that we cherish.

And the Summer Variety Hour Live! reinforced our past, present and future. I’ll meet you at the Muny next summer. Looking forward to greeting the Muny family once more. “Through the years, we’ll always be together, if the fates allow.”

By Lynn Venhaus
Among the many thousands of people tuning in to the Muny’s Summer Variety Hour Live! on Monday nights, a health care professional told Mike Isaacson, the executive producer and artistic director who conceived this musical mash-up, that the show has saved her sanity and her summer. I second that.

If this summer were a mix-tape, mine would include all the magical Muny-ized showtunes, “Hamilton” (just because) and the TwinstheNewTrend (just watch). This bittersweet blend has become Operation: Summer Salvation. We didn’t know how desperately we needed this balm, like a cool breeze on an unbearably muggy day (or a Lemon Freeze under a Muny fan).

Kennedy Holmes

Why else would tears be streaming down my face as the sublime Kennedy Holmes beautifully sang “Children Will Listen” live under the Culver Pavilion, with Tali Allen on piano on Aug. 10, the fourth episode? Holmes, who broke out as Little Inez in 2015’s “Hairspray,” went on to become a phenom on “The Voice,” with a fourth-place finish. (She was robbed!). She remains a loyal Muny Teen and, as the soloist Monday, displayed a stunning maturity.

Under Isaacson – who loves Stephen Sondheim as much as I do – we were able to witness an extraordinary “Into the Woods” in 2015, and as I teared up at least five times during the Muny production back then, watching Tony winner Heather Headley sing “Children Will Listen” was the highlight among many. Leave it to a young woman, Kennedy, to remind us:

Children will look to you
For which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say
“Listen to me”

From a musical stressing the reality behind the make-believe, Monday’s rendition took on a greater poignancy. And being able to see Kennedy’s growth and blossoming as a future major star was another unforgettable “Muny moment.”

In a crazy world of scary happenings and headlines, we have been comforted by the talent of this joyful, faithful and hopeful ‘family’ of entertainers and the time-honored tradition of the Municipal Opera, now 102 years old, for four shows so far. Every superbly mixed show has elicited a rollercoaster of emotions as we take our seat, not in the 11,000 open-air theater, on a warm summer night, but instead before our televisions and computer screens, tissues at the ready.

The anticipation is matched by the exquisite renditions, whether live or on tape, but the added bonus has been seeing the work of such creative spirits – putting together all those filmed clips and using Zoom technology. And then you have the sunny optimism of those Muny Kids and Teens, and well, leaky eyes.

It feels real, even if it is make-believe. Somehow, through cyberspace, we feel connected. And we need it, apparently, for more than 140,000 people tuned in to the first three.

“Through the years, we’ll always be together, if the fates allow” — little did we know how much the lyrics of “Meet Me in St. Louis” would mean during a pandemic, “right here.” So, of course, this cast from the Centennial presentation in 2018 would be this week’s heartwarming sing-a-long reunion.

The sentimentality showed up in waves during the penultimate super-duper deluxe show, despite a heavy thunderstorm in the region that caused uprooted trees, power outages and flash flooding. Yet, here was Mike, underneath the stage, guiding us through another enchanted evening. We weren’t huddled together with our umbrellas, but nonetheless united.

And the urgency of underlying theme “Gotta Dance!” saved the day with some fresh, fantastic choreography.

The unbridled happiness of tap dancers, near and far, took us from stages to home spaces in “Tap Your Troubles Away.” Conceived and choreographed by Muny Resident and Teen Choreographer Katie Johannigman, this was a jolt of jubilation that had me grinning ear to ear, featuring alums from the past decade. And then Jack Sippel’s moving contemporary dance piece, “Speechless” featuring Muny Teens. Breath-taking! A St. Louis native, Broadway performer and Muny alum, Sippel is currently working on the Netflix version of “The Prom,” as he was the dance captain of the Broadway show.

“West Side Story” is my all-time favorite musical, and the Jerome Robbins choreography is swoon-worthy, so to be treated to the goosebumps-inducing “Dance at the Gym” from “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” in 2018 was a treat. The Muny’s 2013 production of “West Side Story” will always stand as one of the best ever, and the West Side Story suite from the Robbins’ greatest-hits compilation reminded me why the show is timeless 63 years later.

The archival footage included “Jersey Boys,” the sensational national premiere outside Broadway/national tours in 2018, and the splendid re-imagining of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” with life force Beth Malone from 2017. Plus, one of the best “Annie” shows I’ve ever seen – “NYC”! — in 2018 helmed by the one-of-a-kind John Tartaglia.

John Tartaglia

It would not be a Muny summer without the exceptional Tartaglia, and he delivered the night’s best laugh-out-loud surprise – appearing as Murray the Muny Raccoon,” the pesky scene-stealer who waddled on stage during ‘The Addams Family” and is missing his scraps and his adoring fans. The versatile performer has memorably played The Cat in the Hat in “Seussical,” the Genie in “Aladdin” and won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Supporting Actor in a Musical for playing Hysterium in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” in 2017, in addition to his directing work. He started as a puppeteer on “Sesame Street,” and went on to “Avenue Q” and playing Pinocchio in “Shrek.”

For the weekly Couple Duo, we had not one but two. Real-life couple Jason Gotay (Jack! Prince Eric! Prince Charming (well, Topher) in Cinderella!) and Muny regular Michael Hartung charmingly performed “Song on the Sand” from “La Cage aux Folles.”

Then the adorable power couple Jenny Powers and Matt Cavenaugh – who wowed us at the Sheldon a few years ago – brought baby daughter Rose with them to reprise “New Words,” a song by composer Maury Yeston. It’s not from a show, but he has composed “Titanic,” “Nine,” “Grand Hotel” among others. Waterworks.

This multi-tissue moment brought the house down, so to speak. All across the nation, we collectively burst into tears while they sang about “the moon, stars and love.”

Wait there was more! “Do-Re-Mi,” a special song-and-dance performance by those effusive Muny Kids and Teens. And those indomitable teens sang a bouncy rendition from “It Roars” from “Mean Girls.”

The Munywood Squares was another fun segment, and behind the scenes is always illuminating. We heard about the Clydesdales Ace and Deuce, and seeing the excitement of that experience from the creative anecdotes was a nice perk.

One more chance to see this show Thursday at 8:15 p.m. on Muny TV. For more information: muny.org/varietyhour/

And then Monday will be the swan song. Supersized (and with the traditional “Auld Lang Syne” too). Aug. 17, 8:15 p.m.

I’m so glad we’ve had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song…

Excuse me while I go grab another tissue.

101st Season to be Announced
The Muny concludes its century of celebration with the seventh installment of its bi-annual concert series, Muny Magic at The Sheldon. Set for Oct. 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m., Muny Magic at The Sheldon will star one of The Muny’s most beloved leading ladies, Jenny Powers, and her husband, Broadway’s Matt Cavenaugh, both Drama Desk nominees.
Powers was recently seen in The Muny’s Centennial Gala, An Evening with the Stars, and was featured in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. Cavenaugh was last seen on Broadway as Tony in the Tony Award-winning revival of West Side Story.
In addition to the performance, Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson will announce the line-up for the highly-anticipated 2019 summer season, The Muny’s first season of its second century, and the premiere season for the new James S. McDonnell Stage.

“I was so happy when Jenny and Matt agreed to join us this fall,” said Isaacson. “Jenny has been a part of our Muny family for a while, with so many wonderful and varied performances to her credit. Having worked with Matt long ago on the first national tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie, and seeing his extraordinary career since, I’m thrilled for the Muny audience to finally have a chance to experience his talent.”
Their show will feature a variety of songs from Broadway, the Great American songbook and a few pop selections, and will be music directed by frequent Muny artist and season music director, Michael Horsley.
“Jenny and Matt are both incredible talents and perfect for this Muny Magic series,” said Muny President and CEO Denny Reagan. “The love they share for their music and each other is unmistakable and I know audiences will enjoy getting caught up in their story.”
JENNY POWERS – Muny credits include: Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (Hildy/Monotony Singer), An Evening with the Stars, Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins), The Addams Family (Morticia Addams), Mamma Mia! (Tanya), Oliver! (Nancy), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Milly) and Camelot (Guenevere). Broadway: Grease, Little Women. Theatre highlights: It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman!; Of Thee I Sing and Follies at NYC City Center Encores!; Donnybrook! at the Irish Rep (Drama Desk nomination); Dangerous Beauty at the Pasadena Playhouse; Happiness at Lincoln Center; Secondhand Lions at the 5th Avenue Theatre; Little Dancer at the Kennedy Center. TV/Film: The Mysteries of Laura (NBC), Blue Bloods (CBS), Power (Starz), The Good Wife (CBS), Mercy (NBC), Law & Order: CI (USA & NBC), Six Degrees (ABC), Nurse Jackie(Showtime), I Think I Love My Wife and Confessions of a Shopaholic. Gonna Make You Love Me is her debut album with husband, Matt Cavenaugh.
MATT CAVENAUGH – Broadway credits include: West Side Story, Grey Gardens, A Catered Affair, Urban Cowboy and Thoroughly Modern Millie (national tour). He can be heard on the original cast recordings of West Side Story, Grey Gardens, A Catered Affairand Death Takes a Holiday. Off-Broadway: Death Takes a Holiday, Grey Gardens. Matt has performed regionally at the La Jolla Playhouse, Los Angeles Reprise, The Old Globe, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Goodspeed Opera House, Dallas Theater Center, Pittsburgh CLO, George Street Playhouse and the Denver Center. Television audiences know Matt as Mark Solomon from One Life to Live, Adam Munson on As the World Turns and from Law & Order: CI. Matt has collaborated twice with the New York Philharmonic on The Soldier’s Tale and Sondheim: The Birthday Concert (PBS). Matt’s debut album, Gonna Make You Love Me, produced and performed with his wife Jenny Powers, is available on iTunes and CDBaby.
What the critics have said about Jenny Powers and Matt Cavenaugh:
“Powers possesses a potent voice, and she commands the stage with her charm and conviction.” – Los Angeles Times
“Cavenaugh’s creamy voice has a persuasive charm.” – Variety
“Broadway stars Matt Cavenaugh and Jenny Powers work in perfect harmony.” – New York Daily News
Following its sensational premiere season staring Tony Award-winner Beth Leavel (2015) and The Buddy Holly Boys (2016), the Muny Magic at The Sheldon concert series has welcomed four of the most beloved leading ladies from recent Muny seasons (2016), Nicholas Rodriguez (2017), four of The Muny’s favorite leading men (2017) and Olivier Award-winner Laura Michelle Kelly (2018). Each fall and spring, the Muny Magic at The Sheldon series showcases the performers who have delighted Muny audiences by offering an intimate evening of story and song.
The October 17 and 18 performances of Muny Magic at The Sheldon will be held at The Sheldon Concert Hall – 3648 Washington Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63108 – at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are available now and range from $25 – $50. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.muny.org/munymagic or call 314-534-1111.
Photo credits: Broadway World, The Muny