By Lynn Venhaus
With magic to do and the ‘Lou turning its lonely eyes to them, the Muny blazed another trail Monday with its introduction of “The Muny Summer Variety Hour Live!”

The first episode was a nifty package of show tunes, personalities, bouncy sing-a-longs, behind the scenes with dedicated staff and several special live moments, all shared on social media in real time by an audience spanning coast to coast. (Latest figures: 25,000 tuned in!).

Oh, what a treat to be reminded of what makes the Municipal Opera so special for 102 years – and not only because it is the oldest and largest outdoor theater in the country, but because it is “our Muny,” right here in St. Louis. And summer isn’t really summer until the Muny opens.

Two of our hometown’s greatest showmen – Lara Teeter and Ken Page – entertained us in royal fashion, with Tony nominee Lara recreating a vintage musical dance he called “Take Me Away!” as his fleet feet took him throughout the great expanse of the Muny grounds one sunny day. He was joined by his son Charlie in the segment.

And live, from the Culver Pavilion, with four musicians socially distanced, the regal Ken Page sang “Memory,” the signature song from “Cats,” in a showstopper that was one for the ages. Night had fallen, and this stage legend gave an emotional powerful rendition. Chills. Leaky eyes.

Add it to the countless memorable Muny moments we have experienced over the years, even though it was remote. We all felt it sitting in our living rooms.

When host Mike Isaacson, Muny executive producer and artistic director, began this maiden voyage from backstage, he said: “We are together in real time.” He is always mindful of being entrusted with the Muny legacy.

I literally burst into tears. I didn’t realize how badly we, well me, needed such a pick-me-up. Oh sure, I have been a realist as to the why, but still wistful: “This would be opening night at the Muny,” I said to myself June 15, remembering the rainbow that came out after intense rainstorm right before the opening of ‘The Wizard of Oz” in 2016.

Tammy Duensing and I at the Muny 2017

And there are those Facebook memories that pop up, recalling how I felt about a production or selfies with my frequent Plus One, Tammy Duensing, whose belting rendition of the national anthem always gets compliments from the people in the seats around us.

In a year that is all about Plan B while trying to be safe and adapt to unprecedented times during a public health crisis, this savvy move to online specials was a ‘next best thing’ scenario, a balm for disappointment. And spoiler alert – this starburst of a show is longer than an hour (thank you!) and it has a 7-minute intermission. What a grand night for singing! And dancing. And laughs.

What a jolly time the “Munywood Squares” trivia interlude was, hosted by the outstanding director Gordon Greenberg, with such good sports as E. Faye Butler, Ann Harada, Vicki Lewis, John Scherer, Christopher Sieber, Steve Rosen, Raymond J. Lee, all Muny favorites. I was able to see contestants staffer Jaclyn Sales and Leon Dobkowski for the first time, who has designed some of the best costumes in recent years (Tarzan! The Wiz! Hairspray! Mamma Mia! Seussical!) and on the panel Jeffrey Schecter (Schecky) when he is not a whirling dervish being Scuttle or Cosmo or filling in as Pseudolus in “Forum.” And J. Harrison Ghee, who was so memorable as Lola in “Kinky Boots” last summer, looked like a million dollars. No signs of Quarantine 15.

E Faye Butler in “The Wiz.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

Because the world turned upside down six months ago when the coronavirus spread became a global pandemic, life as we know it has changed in nearly every aspect. “The new normal” means live theater is on hold, for the most part, and that meant postponing the Muny’s 102nd season line-up to 2021. While the extended break is another sad sign of many life changes in 2020, that didn’t stop the creative minds churning to see how little bits of summer tradition could be rescued.

Online programming became the go-to, and the Cast Party reunion gatherings on Monday were a wonderful opportunity to connect with people who have given me a great deal of joy that is etched in my memories. The Muny TV YouTube channel is a treasure trove of spectacular dance moments and lustrous voices on a warm summer night. They brought us the Muny Magic concerts from the Sheldon, which were a showcase for the incredible talent that graces the Muny stage, and exciting show/cast announcements the past few years.

Using playful retro colors and designs, this “Summer Variety Hour” throwback to 1970s staple TV programs was a merry way to celebrate the good times we share with family and friends – only they used modern technology to make it happen. Zoom and other virtual platforms have been our saving grace during the lockdown.

Through the Brady Bunch grid of the Zoom, The buoyant Muny Kids sang “Happiness” from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” demonstrating the exuberance of young talent. Not to be outdone, the gifted and energetic performers, often seen in the ensemble, under the helm of the Colby Dezelick Dancers, came together from their home spaces, to perform a lively “We Go Together” from “Grease.” Colby’s been a fun fixture on the Muny stage – last seen as Angie the Ox in “Guys and Dolls” and the doctor in “Matilda” in ’19.

Muny veterans Jen Cody and Hunter Foster, who have been married for 23 years, performed “The Doctor Is In,” from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Scenes of their past work – including Jen as the Grandma in “The Addams Family” with Puggsley (Michael Harp) in one of that show’s funniest exchanges, and Hunter in a new production of “Pirates!” were shown.

Of course, you couldn’t have a Muny show without displaying the exquisite voices that fill the back rows of the 11,000 seats, and Emma Degerstedt as Ariel certainly did in the inspired “The Little Mermaid” in 2017, one of my favorite productions in the past decade. Her “Fathoms Below/Where I Belong” evoked my water-colored memories of a sweet shimmering show. It was lovely to see the lithe Muny ensemble dancers as well.

Ashley Brown, a Muny player during her college years who originated the role of “Mary Poppins” on Broadway, has a glorious voice, as exemplified in “The Sound of Music” and “Cinderella” at the Muny. She sang “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from her mother’s home in Florida, as her infant daughter napped.

Through archived clips, we saw a rousing “A Brand New Day” from the resurgent “The Wiz” in 2018, featuring Danyel Fulton as Dorothy, Jared Grimes as the Scarecrow, James T. Lane as the Tin Man and Darius de Haas as the Cowardly Lion. And “Lida Rose” from “The Music Man” with the Barbershop Quartet of Ben Nordstrom, Adam Halpin, J.D. Daw and Joseph Torello harmonizing beautifully.

Mamie Parris and Matt Bogart in “Paint Your Wagon” Photo by Phillip Hamer

To close, 18 cast members of last summer’s reimagined robust “Paint Your Wagon!” sang a vigorous “How Can I Wait?” from all over America, including leads Matt Bogart and Mamie Parris, and supporting players Omar Lopez-Cepero, Bobby Conte Thornton, Maya Keleher, Allan K. Washington, Andrew Kober, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Rodney Hicks and others. What a perfect song to end an enchanted evening with hope and love. (And it knocked the score of “Hamilton,” which has been playing on constant loop in my brain, since July 3, out and became my new ear worm. Go to Muny TV to hear Mamie Parris in the show.)

This monumental effort to pull all these segments together is applause-worthy – and the hours it took to plan and executive I can only imagine. Everyone was in high spirits – connecting us all in a new, and welcome, way.

If you missed the first one, you have one more opportunity to see it, for Episode 1 will be re-broadcast at 8:15 p.m. Thursday, July 23. There will be four more episodes shown every Monday, then repeated Thursday. On Wednesdays, they will announce the plans for the next episode on social media.

I took this photo during the Birthday Bash, when we could go on stage. May 2018.

We are not sitting under the stars in Forest Park, but Munygoers share a special bond, and this endeavor was a unique experience that brought back fond memories. Like many of you, I have a lifetime of them, starting when my grandma took me when I was 10, a poor kid from a big family in Belleville, watching live theater in wide-eyed wonder. Theater would become a major part of my life, and my appreciation began across the river on those warm summer nights.

One of my favorite things about Episode 1 was how they highlighted the many employees who make Muny nights happen by their tremendous commitment to this outdoor slice of theater heaven. There is such passion in their work. I enjoyed the back story of triple-threat Corbin Bleu, as Don Lockwood in the splendid “Singin’ in the Rain” in 2018, getting to dance in the rain for the first time in his rubber shoes, as told by production manager Tracy Utzmyers. And for technical director Tim McDonald explaining how they make the rain happen for that show, and the previous two, in 2005 and 2011.

And my favorite thing about the Muny since 2009, when a Belleville News-Democrat editor asked me to review the season and I enthusiastically said yes, is the possibilities that a new opening night brings seven times a summer. Will they pull off a premiere or classic with uncommon flair? Will everyone rise to the occasion? What will be the night’s “Wow” moments? I remain in awe of the talent and sweat equity it takes to put on a show, and I am enriched by the storytelling and the performers who connect with me, no matter where I am sitting.

And some have become familiar faces that I look forward to seeking out on stage, and I am grateful for these opportunities to see where the directors’ and production team vision takes me. It’s a all about a community coming together in collaboration – that’s what live theater is and what we miss. (That, and the hugs!).

And thanks to some shining moments Monday night, I was transported to a happy place — and just being able to think about the possibilities ahead, is reason to smile. This is only intermission.

Take care. Stay safe. Be strong.

And thank you Muny and your sponsors, for serving us a refreshing summer tonic that was part nostalgia and part pizzazz, and all heart. It might not be perfect – what live event is? – but it’s important.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing EditorTHAT VOICE: Are you on Team Kennedy yet? If you haven’t heard Kennedy Holmes, 13, from St. Louis in her blind audition on “The Voice,” be prepared to be wowed and understand why it went viral.
Part of The Muny Kids for five years, Kennedy starred as Little Inez in the 2015 “Hairspray” production, has sung the national anthem for Cardinals’ games and appeared as one of the Cratchit children in “A Christmas Carol” at The Rep in 2016. She is an eighth grader at John Burroughs School.
Her confident delivery of Adele’s “Turning Tables,” which showcased her control and range, impressed all four judges and got a 4-chair turn – and standing ovation.
She auditioned in Indianapolis earlier this year and is the youngest person in the singing competition this season. Producers saved her for the last spot and teased her appearance in a sneak peek last week that set her schoolmates and local folks buzzing. The cliffhanger coach pick was easy to guess.
Kennedy, while remarkably poised singing, got emotional over Jennifer Hudson, and then sang with her idol in an impromptu “I Am Changing” from “Dreamgirls.”
The guys made convincing pitches.
Adam Levine: “Very, very rarely does someone come around that kind of reignites our passion for what we do. And to hear you sing today did that. Just to see that kind of confidence naturally exist in you at such a young age, it’s unheard of. After the 15 seasons, you really could become the absolute biggest thing to ever come from this show.”
Blake Shelton: “Let me be the first to thank you for coming to ‘The Voice,’ ’cause our ratings are going to shoot through the roof this evening. I think you are the best vocalist that has auditioned this year. I want you to pick me as your coach so you can teach me how to sing like that.”
After Kennedy’s pick, Hudson was ecstatic. “I think the game is over because I just won ‘The Voice’ with little Miss Kennedy. Yes, I did.”
Here’s the clip from the Blind Auditions, which started Sept. 24. To date, her audition video has been viewed 3.6 million times on YouTube.com.

This isn’t the last we’ve seen of Kennedy. It will be fun watching her progress on the national stage, next in the Knockout Rounds, then hopefully Battle Rounds and Live Performances. (And the local television and radio stations are all over it.)
***DEVIL MAY CARE: As the calendar turns autumnal, it’s time for sinister, spooky suspense. Five local theater groups have teamed up to present “Faustival: The Devils We Choose” – one in August and the rest through December.
The artistic collaboration is between Equally Represented Arts, The Midnight Company, Theatre Nuevo, SATE, and the Post-Romantics. They are presenting works on the Faust myth from the 16th century – about a scholar who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for perks.
ERA FaustIn August, ERA, along with Kid Scientist, presented “Faust (go down with all the re$t),” an experimental rock-opera-adaptation of Goethe’s most celebrated work.
Currently, The Midnight Company is presenting the one-act “An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening,” along with another one-act by Mickle Maher, “The Hunchback Variations.”
For more information, www.midnightcompany.com
In October, Theatre Nuevo will present “whither should I fly” from Oct. 25 – Nov. 10 at the William A. Kerr Foundation, 21 O’Fallon St., St. Louis. For more information, visit www.theatrenuevo.com
Starting on Halloween, “Doctor Faustus, or the Modern Prometheus” by John Wolbers and Kit Marlowe will be performed by Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) Wednesdays through Saturdays through Nov. 17 at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive, St. Louis. For more information, www.slightlyoff.org.
The Post-Romantics will present “Doomsday Faust” Dec. 5 – 8 at the Centene Center for the Arts, 3547 Olive Street, St. Louis.
For more information, please visit faustival.org.
***MOVING ON UP: The aforementioned John Wolbers, who has adapted Faust for SATE, shared some exciting news recently. He is a new Producing Associate at the Metro Theatre Company. He has served as the full-time resident teaching artist at MTC since the 2012-2013 season. He will assist Artistic Director Julia Flood with casting, directing and production administration.
Andrew Kuhlman is Broadway bound! He is currently working in New York as a co-producer on “The Prom,” the Broadway musical comedy that begins previews on Oct. 23. Andrew, an associate producer at Stages St. Louis, made the announcement Sept. 7.
“I am beyond excited to be taking this journey with a show that I could not believe in more. I cannot wait for audiences to fall in love with this hilarious, heartfelt and energetic musical,” he said.
“The Prom” has some prominent local connections – including Jack Lane, at Stages St. Louis, as one of its producers. Lane already has two Tony Awards as part of the group behind “Fun Home” and “The Humans.”
Joe Grandy, Andrew Kuhlman of “The Prom”The show lyricist and book writer is Chad Beguelin, who grew up in Centralia, Ill. He’s a multiple Tony nominee, for book and lyrics to “The Wedding Singer” and lyrics to “Aladdin.”
The cast includes Muny favorite Beth Leavel, Tony winner for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and Muny veterans, including St. Louis natives Drew Redington and Jack Sippel, and Fairview Heights native Joe Grandy.
***WHO’S WHO: Upstream Theater is hosting renowned director Marianne de Pury who will stage the U.S. premiere of “Chef” by UK/Egyptian playwright and poet Sabrina Mahfouz. The one-woman show, starring Linda Kennedy, opens Sept. 28 and runs through Oct. 14.
Linda Kennedy, Photo by ProPhotoSTL“Chef” is the gripping story of how one woman went from being an haute-cuisine head chef to a convicted inmate running a prison kitchen. Leading us through her world of mouth-watering dishes and heart-breaking memories, Chef questions our attitudes to food, prisoners, violence, love and hope.
Originally from the French part of Switzerland, de Pury is known for her work with the famed Open Theatre, where she composed music for “America Hurrah” and “Viet Rock.” Since those days she has directed all over the world–mostly in Germany, where her most recent work, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” was nominated as one of the year’s best productions.
Playwright Rob Urbanati came to the ‘Lou for Tesseract Theatre Company’s opening of his play, “Mama’s Boy,” which explores the relationship between a controlling mom and her son, who gained infamy as the assassin of President John F. Kennedy.
Here he is with the cast after Friday night’s show. They got our attention opening night at the .Zack, conveying a roller-coaster of emotions played out in historical context.
Urbanati, of New York City, is a playwright, screenwriter, book author, director, and director of new play development at Queens Theatre in the Park. His well-constructed 2015 drama is a fascinating exploration of family dynamics. It’s directed by Brad Schwartz.
From left: Jeremy Goldmeier (Robert Oswald), Brandon Atkins (Lee Harvey Oswald), playwright Rob Urbanati, Donna Parrone (Marguerite Oswald) and Carly Uding (Marina Oswald).
Lynn Venhaus photo***AROUND TOWN: Alas, the Stephen Sondheim appearance in St. Louis Oct. 4 is sold out. He is accepting the 2018 St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates for being one of the most eminent lyricists and composers of the modern era.
He is the first musical lyricist to win the award since its inception in 1967. In a remarkable career spanning 70 years, Sondheim has written the lyrics, music —or both, for some of the most iconic and long running plays in the history of American theater.
The response was overwhelming, and all seats in the Sheldon Concert Hall and the simulcast viewing room have been reserved. During the event, which begins at 7 p.m., Mike Isaacson, executive producer and artistic director – and major Sondheim fan – will interview him on stage.
Three-time Tony Award winner “Avenue Q” has been extended three more weeks for its winter presentation at the Playhouse @ Westport.
Because of overwhelming ticket response, the “furry, funny and feel-good musical” will now run Jan. 25 – March 3. The cast is a combo of local and touring performers.
Another famous St. Louisan, poet, novelist and playwright A.E. Hotchner, an alumnus of Washington University, has endowed an annual Playwriting Festival. Three new works will be presented this weekend (Sept. 28 and 29) – “Tom and Grace” by Scott Greenberg, “Arriving At” by Ike Butler on Saturday at 2 p.m. and “Florida” by Lucas Marschke at 7 p.m. The guest dramaturg is Michele Volansky, chair of the drama department at Washington College in Maryland. The event is sponsored by Newman’s Own Foundation. For more information, visit: pad.artsci.wustl.edu.
The Stage Left Grille is now under Fox Management, so you can stop there for a bite to eat before a show at the Fox Theatre, the Kranzberg Arts Center or The Grandel, or any place in the Grand Arts Center.
“Confessions of a Nightingale,” a production from the Tennessee Williams Festival set for Nov. 1-4, has to be postponed until 2019.
***CHAMPAGNE & MOONSHINE: If you saw “Always, Patsy Cline” at Stages St. Louis in 2014 or at The Playhouse at Westport the following year, you must remember Jacqueline Petroccia as the star. A national sensation in that role, I recall that her velvety voice was “like butter.” She has released a debut solo album, the double EP “Champagne and Moonshine,” Collaborators on the album include musician royalty from Music City, including members of the Nashville Symphony, the award-winning Rascal Flatts, and Broadway Musician Brent Frederick.
Recorded live, with special permission, at the legendary and historic Quonset Hut on Music Row in Nashville, Tenn.,the album is available online through CD Baby (physical copy), Amazon, and iTunes.
The first EP, “Champagne,” features a big band sound appropriate for any ballroom or supper club, including an original arrangement mix “Crazy/Crazy He Calls Me,” and “Mambo Italiano.” The second EP, “Moonshine,” features new country music hits, and her original debut single “Your Name in Lights,” written by Brandon Hood, Hillary Lee Lindsey, and Troy Verges
Her other stage credits include the national tours of :The Producers,” “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” She was a featured soloist on the album “Where the Sky Ends” by Michael Mott (Broadway Records) and has appeared on “Prairie Home Companion,” featured with the Williamsburg Swing Orchestra and in her solo cabaret show Sometimes Patsy Cline (productions at 54 Below and Regional Theatres). More information can be found at JacquelinePetroccia.com
***YOU GO GLEN COCO: “Is butter a carb? Whatever, I’m having cheese fries.”
Wednesday, Oct. 3, is unofficially known as National Mean Girls Day, so imaginative Chef Liz of Tenacious Eats has created a fun event for the evening. Tickets are $35 and include a Mean Girls-inspired cocktail, entree and Kalteen Protein Bar for dessert.
Expect some “fetch” prizes if you can answer some Mean Girls trivia and photo ops will be available with a Lindsay Lohan lookalike. Costumes are encouraged, and it is on a Wednesday, so you might want to wear pink!
The Tina Fey movie will be shown at 7 p.m. on the big screen at the West End Grill & Pub, 354 N. Boyle. Doors open at 6 p.m. for pre-show fun, Mean Girls trivia, prizes and photo ops. Tickets are available at: www.BrownPaperTickets.com.
***WORD: Decoding Theatre Reviews – a must-read: http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/theatre-reviews-decoded/
***GO SEE A PLAY POLL: Who are your favorite moms in musicals? Answer our poll and you will be entered in our drawing for two tickets to “One Funny Mother” at the Playhouse @ Westport Plaza on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 8 p.m.
Dena Blizzard, former Miss New JerseyHilarious Dena Blizzard, best known as “The Target Mom,” is a viral sensation and former Miss New Jersey. Her one-woman show puts the fun in domestic dysfunction.
FAVORITE MOM IN MUSICALS:Mae Peterson in “Bye, Bye Birdie”Margaret Smith in “Carrie”“Big Edie” Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale in “Grey Gardens”Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray”The Witch in “Into the Woods”Lady Thiang in “The King and I”Margaret Johnson in “The Light in the Piazza”
Send your pick to: [email protected] by Monday, Oct. 1, at noon. Winner will be notified soon after, and arrangements will be made for your tickets to be waiting for you at the box office.
Our last winner was Christopher Strawhun for “Oklahoma!” at Stages St. Louis.
***TRIVIA TIME-OUT: Let’s hear it for St. Louis native Chris Redd and longest-ever SNL cast member Kenan Thompson on their Emmy win for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics for “Come Back, Barack,” a Boyz II Men-style parody from last November’s episode hosted by Chance the Rapper.

Q: Despite multiple nominations, SNL has won only once before, for what song?
Justin Timberlake and Andy Samburg’s collaboration, “D**k in a Box.”
Fun fact: Theme songs also count for the award. “Moonlighting,” “Cheers,” “Chico and the Man,” “Growing Pains” and “Police Woman” have won.
Chris Redd didn’t live in St. Louis long and moved to Chicago as a youth. He is back at “Saturday Night Live” for his second season, which starts this Saturday, with host Adam Driver and musical guest Kanye West.
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Tips? Contact: [email protected]