By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
A powerhouse cast makes sure we fall head-over-high-heels about “Kinky Boots,” a
flashy and fun musical that soars into the starry night at the Muny.

This regional premiere is polished to perfection. For the
first time, I understood the show’s heart and soul, and how its universality touched
people, becoming an international smash-hit and winning six Tony Awards, including
Best Musical, the Olivier Award and a Grammy for original cast recording.

The basic premise is simple yet resonates. It is inspired
by true events and a BBC documentary, which was adapted into a 2005 British feature
film with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola and Joel Edgerton as Charlie. A failing shoe
factory owner teams up with a drag queen to save his family business by
diversifying the product. That niche market in women’s footwear would be “kinky
boots” – bright, glittery sturdy stilettos made well to meet the needs of flamboyant
performers-in-drag.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Charlie of Northampton, meet Simon of Clacton. They are
from different worlds, but share the weight of parental expectations and
self-acceptance issues. Their duet “I’m Not Your Father’s Son” is an
exclamation point on the matter. They work through this and more, all to the eclectic
beats of rockstar Cyndi Lauper’s first foray into show tunes, with new wave and
club music influences.

The unlikely pair find a common bond, as do the employees
in this relatable workplace comedy. One enlightened blue-collar bloke says: “When
you can change your mind, you can change the world!”

The message of tolerance is a fitting one for Gay Pride Month
as the musical celebrates individuality and inclusion. It’s wrapped in a
feel-good dance party with get-on-your-feet rhythms, and the cast is brimming
with vim and vigor.

Many elements make this first U.S. theatrical production
outside Broadway/national tours so special, but one factor is certain: casting
performers with experience in “Kinky Boots” was a stroke of genius. And it
shows in the brisk crisp and snappy staging.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

The theatricality of swaggering sparkplug J. Harrison Ghee
as Lola, who toured internationally in the role and was a Broadway replacement,
thrusts him into legendary diva status. Looking and sounding like Whitney
Houston in her prime, he tugs at everyone’s heartstrings in “Hold Me in Your
Heart.”

We are truly in “The Land of Lola,” as it’s obvious from Ghee’s
first entrance. During “Sex Is in the Heel,” he seizes the expansive stage,
strutting with major attitude. His moves in those high heels are a triumph over
physics.

The lithe and blithe Ghee showcases his dramatic flair and
knows how to get a laugh, tossing off book writer Harvey Fierstein’s pointed
barbs with ease.

Then there is Graham Scott Fleming as Charlie, who plays
the shoe factory heir apparent with conviction. His conflicts are genuine. However,
his vocal prowess is where he really shines.

His vocal range is well-suited for Tony-winner Lauper’s compositions,
and he interprets the heartfelt lyrics well, especially in “Step One” and “The
Soul of a Man.” He has had much success in Toronto, including nabbing a
Canadian theater award nomination for his performance as Charlie.

Tony-nominated Taylor Louderman, a native of Bourbon, Mo., who
began as a Muny Teen ten years ago, showcases her multiple talents reprising
the goofy lovestruck assembly line worker Lauren that she played on Broadway.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

In her standout number, “The History of Wrong Guys,” she demonstrates
her deft physical comedy skills and how she has come into her own. It’s a blissful
Muny moment. The crowd may not have noticed her at first for entrance applause,
but she sure earned a big ovation after that number.

The perky Louderman, with several Broadway credits and a
few key roles at the Muny – last seen as Amneris in “Aida” (the best thing
about that 2015 production), took off as Regina in “Mean Girls” to appear in
this show.

The ensemble is a tight mix, with Paul Whitty a standout as
bigoted foreman Don.

Photo by Phillip HamerJohn Scherer, a master of comic timing as evident in his
turns in “The Foreigner” and “Noises Off!” at The Repertory Theatre of St.
Louis, is hilarious as the old-school manager George.

So is Jen Perry, who reprises the role of saucy older
worker Trish she originated on Broadway.

Several cast members were in the Broadway production, which
opened April 2013 and ran for six years and 1,400 performances until April 7
this year, including Meryn Becket, Holly Davis and Maggie McDowell, and Angels Callan
Bergman, Ian Fitzgerald and Kyle Post. Angel Ricky Schroeder was in the
national tour.

Caroline Bowman, who plays Charlie’s unlikable
materialistic social-climbing fiancé Nicola, originated the role of Maggie and
then closed as Nicola in April. Ross Lekites plays Charlie’s friend Harry after
being in Broadway and national tour ensembles.

St. Louis performers are also an integral part of the
action. Omega Jones, in his debut as Simon Sr., has a tear-jerking moment at
the nursing home where Lola is entertaining. Veteran Zoe Vonder Haar is funny
as the Milan Stage Manager. Victor Landon and Khaydn M. Adams are the energetic
young Charlie and Simon characters respectively.

When the eight drag queens known as The Angels make their striking
entrance, it’s a magical Muny moment – and received an enthusiastic ovation.

Photo by Phillip HamerOther high-stepping moments include the Act One finale, “Everybody Say Yeah,” which is a marvel of movement on conveyor belts, and the rousing grand finale, “Raise You Up/Just Be,” which should empower everyone to “Feed your fire.”

Music Director Ryan Fielding Garrett, who conducted the “Kinky
Boots” national tour, skillfully drives the catchy tunes and heart-tugging
ballads.

The human connection is an important part of this show,
just as it is at the oldest and biggest outdoor theater in the country. And the
Muny connections for this show, I feel, have boosted its value and worth.
Namely, the original stylish direction and cheerful choreography of Jerry
Mitchell, one of Broadway’s most lauded artists who won a Tony Award for “Kinky
Boots” choreography. Involved in 50 Broadway shows, he earned his Equity card
at the Muny and was a Webster University student.

His work is recreated here by director DB Bonds, who played
Emmett in “Legally Blonde” eight years ago at the Muny, and choreographer Rusty
Mowery, who worked on Muny productions “Hairspray” and “Legally Blonde.”

Those special ties just boost the care you notice in this
production, a passion project for all involved.

Photo by Phillip HamerOn the technical side, the creative team’s work continues
to shine on the new stage with the upgrades, especially light, sound and video
screens.

Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt’s grid work in the
Price and Sons Factory is efficient, functional and flows with purpose. His
glitzy touch to the Milan runway is as over the top as the boots – his ‘wow’
moment. Video Designer Shawn Duan seamlessly extended the expansive exterior
shots.

Also stepping up his game is Lighting Designer Nathan W.
Scheuer, who made sure the musical numbers glow and sparkle.

Co-sound designer John Shivers won a Tony Award for “Kinky
Boots.” He and David Patridge have been a team at the Muny since 2015.

Costume designer Gregg Barnes, two-time Tony winner for “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Follies” revival, provides his impressive Tony-nominated “Kinky Boots” designs, and The Angels and Lola’s bold eye-popping outfits befit fashionistas. Costume coordination is by Lindsay McWilliams.

The wig work is also outstanding, with original design by Josh Marquette, and work by additional wig designer Kelley Jordan.

“Kinky Boots” finds its footing early on and grows in goodwill as people build upon their dream with helping hands. Endearing in portrayals and intent, its power is a slow build, but it’s lasting, and that is “The Most Beautiful Thing.” And you’ll walk away lifted by this new outlook.

The Muny presents “Kinky Boots” every evening at 8:15 p.m. June 17-25. For more information or for tickets, visit www.muny.org

Photo by Phillip Hamer

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