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 EditorA STAR WAS BORN: It was as if scripted in a movie. You’ve heard of that classic moment in the 1933 movie “42nd Street” when an understudy takes over for an injured diva. Well, it really happened right here in St. Louis one summer 46 years ago at The Muny.
On Aug. 14, 1972, MGM musical star Ann Miller was playing Reno Sweeney to Michael Callan’s Billy Crockett in “Anything Goes.” The classic Cole Porter romantic romp was underway when right after the song “Friendship” during a scenery change, Miller was conked on the head by a steel boom. Callan had followed her off-stage, then found her on the floor, dazed and bruised.

“Is there a doctor in the house?” A call went out from the stage and 15 doctors responded. The show was cancelled and Miller taken to Deaconess Hospital with a mild brain concussion and loss of equilibrium. She spent 23 days there.With Miller out but not wanting to cancel the week, Muny brass sought a replacement. They plucked Pat St. James, a senior at Webster University, from the ensemble. She rose to the occasion.
St. James, whose parents were local broadcast celebrities Clif and Nance St. James, was praised for her soaring performance. She later thrived in a musical theater career.
But in 1999, she switched gears, earning a degree in theology and ordained an Episcopal priest. She was married to David Roberts, and they lived in Atlanta with their two children, Oliver and Julia. At age 61, after a four-year battle with cancer, she died on Dec. 5, 2010.
Her moment in the sun became a Muny legend.
“Anything Goes” may have been Miller’s first appearance at The Muny but it wouldn’t be her last. She would be persuaded to return in the next decade, for ‘Sugar Babies” with Mickey Rooney in 1984.
Miller starred in “Kiss Me Kate,” “Easter Parade,” “On the Town,” “Stage Door,” “Room Service” and “Mulholland Drive” (?!?).Side Note: I actually saw Pat St. James as Reno Sweeney that week at The Muny. Everyone was abuzz.
(“Anything Goes” photo from Muny archives, from left, Pat Paulsen, Pat St. James, Michael Callan.)
***HELLO, USA!: Congratulations to Madison Johnson of St. Louis, who has been cast in the national tour of “Hello, Dolly!” that begins in late September. She is part of the ensemble and understudy for Minnie Fay.This tour of the Broadway revival, which won four Tony Awards in 2017, will feature Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi and Lewis J. Stadlen as Horace Vandergelder. Stadlen, a three-time Tony nominee, has been in several Muny shows, including “The Producers,” “Damn Yankees,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Madison has been part of the Muny ensemble the past six years, recently playing Lucille Ballard in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” She was Kristine in “A Chorus Line” last summer and Frenchie in 2014’s “Grease.” She started at age 7 as a Muny Kid. A graduate of Whitfield School and Elon College, she moved to New York City in 2016.
***
SIX DEGREES OF ST. LOUIS: John David Washington is starring in “BlackkKlansman” as undercover cop Ron Stallworth, who wrote the book that Spike Lee has adapted into this acclaimed film.

He was signed by the St. Louis Rams in 2007 after he was not drafted in the NFL Draft. Later cut from the Rams, he was a running back for the Hamburg Sea Devils, a German team playing in the NFL Europe League. Fun fact: Eldest son of two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington.
Photo: Adam Driver and John David Washington
***GO SEE A PLAY! POLL: The St. Louis Fringe Festival’s local headlining act is an original musical written and composed by Colin Healy called “The Gringo.” The world premiere will be performed four times from Thursday, Aug. 16 through Sunday, Aug. 19, at the .Zack, 3224 Locust.
It’s about how art can bring a community together. Set in Miami, a local street artist is wrongfully gunned down by police. As told through the lens of a successful painter, this community faces injustice and rapid gentrification. They learn what it means to fight for your home.
The cast includes Gheremi Clay, Kevin Corpuz, Robert Crenshaw, Evann De-Bose, Riley Dunn, William Humphrey, Omega Jones, Tim Kaniecki, Alicia Revé Like, Brittany Losh, Samantha Madison, Gabby McNabb, Carly Niehaus, Janine Norman and David Zimmerman.
Healy directs, with Bradley Rohlf assistant director; Christopher Page-Sanders choreographer and Carly Uding costume design.Tieliere Cheatem contributed the artwork. On opening night, they will give this portrait away that has been signed by the cast and the crew. Tickets available at Metrotix.com

For a chance to win two tickets to one performance, enter our poll drawing!Poll Question: What Is Your Favorite Show About Art? “Art”
“Is He Dead?”“Red”“Sunday in the Park with George”“Sight Unseen”
Submit your selection to [email protected] by noon on Wednesday, Aug. 15. Please include your phone number. You will be notified that afternoon if you won, and you can select what performance so that tickets can be arranged. The show is at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and Sunday at 2 p.m. Thanks for participating.
Winner of our two tickets to “Meet Me in St. Louis” was Chuck Brinkley. Thank you, Muny!
“Meet Me in St. Louis” received the most votes as the favorite local movie shot in or made about St. Louis.
***TRIVIA TIME-OUT: Oscar winner Shelley Winters, whose career spanned five decades, was born Shirley Schrift on Aug. 18, 1920, in St. Louis to Jewish immigrant parents. Her father, a tailor, moved the family to Brooklyn when she was a child. She died at age 86 in 2006.
Once nicknamed “The Blonde Bombshell,” she later became known for forceful dramatic roles.For what movie performances did she win her two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress?Answer: “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1959, as a shrill Mrs. Van Daan, and “A Patch of Blue” in 1965, in which she played a slatternly mother cruel to her blind daughter.
Her breakthrough role on stage was as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” five years into the run, and she was noticed in “A Double Life” starring Oscar winner Ronald Coleman in 1947.But after a dissatisfying number of movie roles, she finally got the role of her lifetime in “A Place in the Sun” with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.
Some of her other big movies were “A Night of the Hunter” in 1955 and “The Poseidon Adventure” in 1972. Earlier, she had returned to studying at the Actors Studio and became a big advocate of the Lee Strasberg method.
A lifelong progressive Democrat and outspoken on feminist issues, she became quite a raconteur on talk shows during the 1970s and ‘80s. Her two tell-all autobiographies created quite a stir, as she had some high-profile leading-men dalliances.
Fun fact: She roomed with Marilyn Monroe when they were just starting out in Hollywood.
Happy Birthday, Shelley! (She would have been 98 Monday).Photo at right: Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters.
***ICYMI: A movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning “In the Heights” is planned for summer release 2020. Jon M. Chu, who helmed the new romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” will direct.Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” will be made into a movie, and production is to start in November. Stars signed so far are Tony winners James Corden and Ian McKellen, along with Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and Grammy winner Taylor Swift.
***WORD/DOWN MEMORY LANE: “Would you shut your phones off for Christ sakes?” – Stanley Tucci, during the Aug. 14, 2002, performance of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. An audience member’s cell phone kept ringing. Calls for a ban on cell phones at NYC’s theatres grew louder, and a law was put into effect in 2003.
***Have any tidbits for this people column? Contact Managing Editor Lynn Venhaus – [email protected]
.All photos from archives or submitted. Featured image is of St. Louis native Shelley Winters.