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

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

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