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
Managing Editor
RISING STARS: Seeing talented teenagers passionately follow their dreams is such a thrill. The Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation is ahead of the game, for it fosters, promotes, and encourages young people in the St. Louis region to discover and participate in the joy and wonder of live performances.
Besides the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition, the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation also produces a variety of other performing arts programs that focus on youth including Kids’ Night at the Fabulous Fox, Broadway Master Classes, Educational Encores, and is a producing partner of the 2nd Annual St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards.
This Sunday, they are sponsoring a free event that will feature 25 entertainment acts, including finalists from the 8th Annual St. Louis Teen Talent Competition and nomineees from the 2nd Annual St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards:

The High Schooll Musical Theatre Awards representatives include: Outstanding Lead Actress winner Maggie Kuntz and nominees Paige Terch. Meg Gorton and  Sydney Jones
Outstanding Lead Actor nominees Tony Merritt and Jared Goudsmit.
Outstanding Supporting Actress nominees Annelise Laakko, Natalie Brown and Haley Driver.
The Teen Talent Showcase representatives include pianists John Yanev and Robyne Sieh, singers Morgan Taylor, Josh Royal, Bennett English and Jennifer Ferry; dancers Arielle Adams, De’Jai Walker, Madison Alexander, Megan Mayer, Brooke Reese, Hillary Zgonina, Kelsey Carnes and DessaRae Lampkins; alto sax player Kameron Huff and TBD (Lilliana Matthews, Aaron Moore, Everett Remstedt, Allan Stacy and Jalen Thompson.
The Rising Stars Showcase featuring the Stars of Tomorrow will take place on Sunday, Aug. 5, at 2 p.m. at The Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis. Admission is free and it is open to the public. For more information, visit: www.foxpacf.org.
 
Photo Maggie Kuntz, Dolly Levi in Cor Jesu’s “Hello,Dolly!” She went on to compete in the National Jimmy Awards.
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EXPLORE ST. LOUIS:  St. Louis will be rolling out the red carpet when throngs come to the city for the 100th PGA Championship Aug. 6 – 12 at the Bellerive Country Club.
Have you seen the four commercials that award-winning actor and St. Louis native Sterling K. Brown has done for the St. Louis Visitors and Convention Bureau? The 30-second segments are “Arch,” “Blues,” “Family Fun” and “Neighborhoods.”

Local actor, playwright and theater booster Stephen Peirick played Merriwether to Matt Lindhardt’s Lewis in the “Arch” commercial. He said Sterling was kind and introduced himself before they started working on the spot.
If you want to see the commercials or find out more about what’s happening here in August, check out www.explorestl.com.
 
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GO SEE A PLAY POLL: Meet at the Muny for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the finale of the Muny’s Centennial Season! Those who send in their choice in the poll will be placed in a drawing for two tickets to any performance of “Meet Me in St. Louis” from Aug. 4 – 12 at the Muny in Forest Park.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” was a 1944 MGM movie before it was adapted as a stage musical in 1989, although the Muny presented it before that.in the 1960s and ’70s.
This 2018 production will feature a revised book by Gordon Greenberg and new orchestrations by John McDaniel is the first since 2009, and the eighth overall.
McDaniel, a Grammy, Tony and Emmy-winning producer, composer, conductor and pianist is from St. Louis. He was Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show bandleader from 1996 to 2002, and has worked with the Muny before, on the 2012 “Pirates!”
Poll Question for Ticket Drawing: What is your favorite movie that either takes place in St. Louis or was shot in St. Louis?
“The Game of Their Lives”“The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery”“King of the Hill”“Meet Me in St. Louis”“Up in the Air”“White Palace”
Send your selection by email to: [email protected] by 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3. Please include your phone number. The winner will be notified, and arrangements will be made with the Muny for the night you choose.
Our July 28 poll winner was Robert Kapeller of St. Louis. He won two tickets to “Evita” at The Rep on Sept. 7. As for the favorite girlfriends musical, “Wicked” won in a landslide.
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DOWN MEMORY LANE: The first time I saw the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” was at a free showing at the downtown Famous Barr department store the summer of 1974. They had special events and exhibits in honor of the 70th anniversary of the World’s Fair in St. Louis and showed the movie for free in their ninth floor exhibition hall. (That’s what was transformed into the holiday world extravaganza at Christmastime.) At the movie, they sold specially-priced iced tea and hot dogs, two refreshments who made their debut in 1904.
Sally Benson’s “Kensington Stories” was the basis for the movie, and her family lived at 5135 Kensington in north St. Louis city. The house is long-gone but this is what it once looked like, pictured at left.
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TRIVIA TIME-OUT: Forty years ago, the first National Lampoon movie, “Animal House” premiered. This groundbreaking movie first shown on July 28, 1978 spawned many knockoffs and launched the careers of many young stars, including the first film by SNL breakthrough John Belushi. (And is very helpful in the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game).
Question: Who are the two people associated with the movie that have a local connection?
Answer: Writer Harold Ramis attended Washington University, Class of 1966, and used his college days as a member of Zeta Beta Tau for inspiration. He would go on to fame as a writer, actor (“Ghostbusters”) and director (“Groundhog Day”), and returned to his roots here. He served two terms on the Washington University board of trustees and was master of ceremonies for Homecoming in 1984. Here is a 1979 photo of him back in a Wash U frathouse.

Karen Allen, who played Katy, was born in Carrollton, Ill. Her mother was from Jerseyville and her father from Roodhouse, and she spent summers visiting her grandparents in Jersey County after his FBI work took them to other cities for her first 10 years. Her father went to Washington University after her parents married; they met at Illinois College in Jacksonville.
I interviewed the delightful and very active Allen two years ago when she was being honored by the St. Louis International Film Festival. She said she enjoys seeing cast members at film reunion events.

At left she is shown with Peter Riegert. “Animal House” was her first movie.
To read more about her life, here is my feature in the Belleville News-Democrat. https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article114225998.html
***WORD: Wise advice from the late great screenwriter, actor and director Harold Ramis:
“There’s a great rabbinical motto that says you start each day with a note in each pocket. One note says, “The world was created for you today,” and the other note says, “I’m a speck of dust in a meaningless universe,” and you have to balance both things.”
“No one will laugh at how great things are for somebody.”
“My only conclusion about structure is that nothing works if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell.”
― Harold Ramis (1944 – 2014)
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WINNERS CIRCLE: Cinema St. Louis handed out awards for the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase on July 22. This year’s event featured 107 films, and some advanced to the 27th annual St. Louis International Film Festival Nov. 1 – 11. These are the juried award winners that were written, directed, edited, or produced by St. Louis residents or films with strong local ties.
DOCUMENTARIES
Best Use of Music: Busking on the Wagon, Randy Shinn and Drew Gowran
Best Sound: Such and Such, Cory Byers
Best Editing: Gateway Sound, Justin Fisher and Patrick Lawrence
Best Cinematography: Lingua Francas, David Christopher Pitt
Best Local Subject: The Man Behind the Merferds, Phil Berwick
Best Direction: Lisa Boyd, An American Tragedy
Best Documentary Short: For a Better Life, Yasmin Mistry
Best Documentary Feature: Gateway Sound, Justin Fisher
EXPERIMENTAL
Best Experimental Film: Passages in Revisiting: I Hear Someone Playing Urheen, Xinyue Deng
NARRATIVES
Best Costumes: Shutter, Nancy Eppert and Maude Vintage
Best Makeup/Hairstyling: East Plains: Get Out!, Jessica Dana
Best Use of Music: The Wedding Song, Ben Stanton, Thia Schuessler and Will Dickerson
Best Sound: Strings, Ross Mercer, Ryan Kneezle and Theo Lodato
Best Production Design/Art Direction: Parallel Chords, Gypsi Pate
Best Special/Visual Effects: Dawn of Man, Vlad Sarkisov
Best Editing: MLM, Benjamin Dewhurst
Best Cinematography: Parallel Chords, Kyle Krupinksi
Best Screenplay: Foxes, Tristan Taylor and Garrick BernardBest Actor: Ayinde Howell, Foxes
Best Actress: Jackie Kelly, Mother of Calamity
Best Direction: Richard Louis Ulrich, Steve
Best Animated Film: Tiffanys, Caitlin Chiusano, Sean Esser and Zhara Honore
Best Comedy: Cabin Killer, Michael Rich
Best Drama: Saint Sinner, Brian Cooksey
Best Narrative Short: Foxes, Tristan Taylor
Best Narrative Feature: Parallel Chords, Catherine Dudley-Rose
To see the list of films selected for SLIFF, visit www.cinemastlouis.org
Pictured are Best Actor Aynde Howell of “Foxes” and Best Actress Jackie Kelly of “Mother of Calamity” on the Showcase program.
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Have any tidbits for the column? Please contact Lynn Venhaus at: [email protected]
Featured photo of ‘Meet Me in St. Louis” from Tams-Witmark. Harold Ramis photos from Washington University archives.