By Lynn Venhaus

The best produced show of the Muny’s 103rd season, “Chicago” capped off the welcome return to tradition in Forest Park this summer with a sultry and sleek music-and-dance showcase.

Everything about the production was on point – from the crisp staging by director Denis Jones and his snappy choreography to the jazzy brass beats from the swinging orchestra conducted by music director Charlie Alterman.

And this production blazes with star power. You will remember the names of the lead trio: Sarah Bowden (Roxie Hart), J. Harrison Ghee (Velma Kelly) and James T. Lane (Billy Flynn).

With snazzy music by John Kander and barbed lyrics by Fred Ebb, patterned after old-timey vaudeville numbers, and a saucy original book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, the story is a sardonic take on fame and the justice system set during the freewheeling Jazz Age.

It is based on a 1926 play by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about actual criminals she covered for a newspaper in Chicago. This current script adaptation is by David Thompson, who worked with Kander and Ebb on the musicals “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Steel Pier.”

Jones’ clever concept was to set the show as an entertaining spectacle at a speakeasy, with café tables around a perimeter so it’s watched by not only the Muny audience but also by performers on stage. He did a similar staging, but not an exact replica, for the 2012 Muny version. That point of view works brilliantly.

Scenic designer Tim Mackabee gave it a striking look while the lighting design by Rob Denton added to the stylized atmosphere and the stellar video design by Shawn Duan complemented the experience perfectly.

Drenched in cynicism, “Chicago” satirizes corruption and is a show-bizzy spin on tawdry headline-grabbing trial that marked the Prohibition Era — but are also timely today. Merry murderers Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly attempt to seize the spotlight and become celebrities.

Perhaps when the musical debuted in 1975, it was ahead of its time, for contemporary audiences didn’t find it relatable.  The week after the Broadway show closed after 936 performances in the summer of 1977, it transferred to the Muny. Starring Jerry Orbach and Ann Reinking, it was not well-received (I was there).

The mostly unsympathetic characters take part in a three-ring circus that’s part illusion and part rhapsody in sleaze. Its relevance has only grown over the years, especially in the digital age of social media.

A rebirth after a robust 1996 Tony Award-winning revival received universal acclaim and broke records as the longest-running musical revival and the longest running American musical in history, second only to “The Phantom of the Opera” on the all-inclusive list (it surpassed “Cats” on Nov. 23, 2014, with its 7,486th performance).

Because the 24-hour news cycle has helped fuel an obsessive celebrity culture and the emergence of reality television has made stars out of unsavory housewives, wealthy influencers like the Kardashians and self-absorbed narcissists, now society has caught up with “Chicago’s” place in pop culture history.

It took me awhile to warm up to the musical, but after watching a few high-profile celebrity trials, you see the parallels. And those songs from the team that gave us the insightful “Cabaret” get better every time you hear them.

Sarah Bowden as Roxie Hart. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

A movie adaptation in 2002 garnered an Academy Award for Best Picture, earning six total, including Best Supporting Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma, which also helped its acceptance. It was the first musical since “Oliver!” in 1968 to win the top award.

Cut to Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson’s first season at The Muny in 2012, and “Chicago” was second in the line-up following Fox Theatricals’ Tony winner “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” He said it had been the most requested show on the annual survey for several years.

It’s back, for just the third time, 10 years later, with Jones, now a two-time Tony Award nominee for choreography on “Tootsie” in 2019 and “Holiday Inn” in 2017, raising the bar once again.

He has put his stamp on of two of the Muny’s best shows during the past decade, “42nd Street” in 2016 (Jones, St. Louis Theater Circle Award) and “A Chorus Line” in 2017, and now with another fresh outlook on “Chicago.”

Jones is familiar with the Broadway revival, for he was a swing performer and later dance captain, during four separate runs for him (performing in total for about four and a half years). He worked with Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey and James Naughton, who began their roles in 1996. So, he had specific ideas on what to keep and what to change.

His associate choreographer, Barry Busby, deserves a shout-out too, for the dance numbers are seamless. They put the roar back in The Roaring Twenties, and the vibrancy shows in Bowden-led “Roxie” and “Me and My Baby,” and Billy’s flashy “Razzle Dazzle.”

“Chicago” will always be Fosse’s magnus opus, for his signature moves, those distinctive deliberate dance steps – and jazz hands! But this isn’t a copycat at all.  (Fosse may have lost the Tonys for choreographer and director pf “Chicago” to “A Chorus Line” in 1976, but he holds the all-time record, with eight, for choreography).

The athletic dancers excel at the high-octane numbers. Six performers carry out “Cell Block Tango” with the attitudes you expect – Liz (Madison Johnson), Annie (Taeler Cyrus), June (Veronica Fiaoni), Hunyak (Lizz Picini), Velma (Ghee), and Mona (Carleigh Bettiol), more commonly known as “Pop, Six, Squish, Uh-Uh, Cicero, and Lipschitz.”

Bowden plays Hart with verve, oozing phony wholesomeness in the public eye and a ruthless craving for attention when not. She was here once, in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” and is an energetic firecracker on stage.

The magnetic Ghee sashays and struts as tough-as-nails Kelly, resentful of Hart being the shiny new sensation. He got our attention as Lola in “Kinky Boots” in 2019 and is a dynamic force every time he appears. Wearing satiny outfits and displaying a silky voice, he sets the tone with a seductive “All That Jazz” and an indignant “I Know a Girl,” and shows off his dexterity in “I Can’t Do It Alone.”

J Harrison Ghee, Sarah Bowden. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Bowden is fire to Ghee’s ice, a combustible fun mix for the “My Own Best Friend” that closes Act 1 and the “Nowadays”/ “Hot Honey Rag” finale with those omnipresent canes and hats Fosse was so fond of using.

James T. Lane embodies the slick ambulance chaser lawyer Billy Flynn with a demanding and greedy nature – and delivers a dandy disingenuous “All I Care About” – accompanied by a marvelous fan dance that received its own ovation. Lane was last seen as Sebastian in 2017’s “Little Mermaid” here.

One of this show’s standout numbers is the “We Both Reached for the Gun” press conference rag with Billy pulling Roxie’s strings like a ventriloquist and the ensemble doing fast footwork.

It’s good to see veteran performers Emily Skinner and Adam Heller, who were both in The Rep’s magnificent “Follies” in 2016, and St. Louis Theater Circle nominees for previous Muny work, back on the outdoor stage. As Matron “Mama” Morton, Skinner belts out a terrific “When You’re Good to Mama” and teams with Ghee on one of my favorites, “Class.”

Heller, last seen as Ben Franklin in “1776,” plays Roxy’s cuckolded husband Amos Hart as a more naïve sad sack, not realizing how he is being manipulated. He strikes the right tone for an affecting ‘Mr. Cellophane.”

With her sweet soprano, Ali Ewoldt poses as the powerful radio personality Mary Sunshine and sings the ironic “Little Bit of Good.”

Regular Michael James Reed capably portrays five different roles in the ensemble: stage manager, Sgt. Fogarty, doctor, Aaron and the Judge.

The technical elements were also superior, with costume designer Emily Rebholz’s striking work with vintage fashions and for limber dance outfits, accompanied by strong wig design by Tommy Kurzman.

The shortened season is coming to an end, and what the Muny achieved this summer is remarkable, putting five shows together in eight weeks. This is also the time for a fond farewell to Denny Reagan, who is retiring after spending 53 years at the Muny, the last 30 as President and CEO.

A trip to the Muny isn’t complete until you greet Denny, or see him greeting patrons, at his ‘spot.’ We look forward to working with his top-shelf successor, Kwofe Coleman, starting in January.

Cell Block Tango. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

This collaborative production was a grand, great, swell time where all the elements came together in blissful harmony.

Attendance for the opening night performance was 6,435. The show runs an estimated 2 hours and 30 minutes.

“Chicago” is the final show of the shortened 103rd five-show season,  through Sunday, Sept. 5. Performances are at 8:15 p.m. each evening on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. Emerson was the 103rd season sponsor.

For more information, visit muny.org.

Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, online at muny.org or by phone by calling (314) 361-1900 ext. 1550.

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The company of ‘Chicago.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.

By Lynn Venhaus

A refreshing summer breeze took over the Muny for the premiere of the solid-gold Emilio and Gloria Estefan musical “On Your Feet!” and transformed it into an effusive Saturday night Dance Party. Did we need this now or what?

A winning combination of melodic Latin rhythms, heartfelt pop ballads, ebullient dance moves and an only-in-America success story, this electrifying jukebox musical swiftly engaged the crowd, who seemed ready to have the rhythm get them up and on their feet for a rockin’ megamix curtain call.

The winds of change were noticeable opening night on that venerable stage in Forest Park, where it has been a beacon in times of turmoil – and created more than a few memorable moments. Will we remember this night as a turning point? It deserves to be one.

To be sure, it was a fait accompli that also was of historical significance. Looking back at the past decade, this Muny premiere is the most recent work on the schedule, having opened on Broadway in 2015.

While the Municipal Opera archives includes pre-Broadway tryouts and shows imported directly from New York, “On Your Feet!” is also among the shows that have had the shortest time between its Broadway debut and the Muny-produced premiere. For instance, “On Your Feet!” has six years between those markers, only surpassed by “Legally Blonde” — 2007 in NYC and 2011 in Forest Park, and “Newsies” on Broadway in 2012 and at the Muny in 2017. (“Kinky Boots” and “Matilda the Musical” both opened on Broadway in April 2013 and were at the Muny the summer of 2019, and “Shrek the Musical” was in NYC in 2007 and at The Muny in 2013, so all tying the six years’ gap.)

The show also represents a sea change — the first about Latinos by Latinos with a primarily Latino cast. The Estefans are known for breaking barriers, so kudos for this achievement, too.

Arianna Rosario and Omar Lopez-Cepero as Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Because the audience of 5,930 wholeheartedly embraced this modern musical, magic materialized and represented something larger in the big picture. After all, the Muny is most importantly about community, and “On Your Feet!” is about what community means – and how determination and everlasting love can get us over insurmountable odds.

There is so much to like about this local production, well-suited for the expansive outdoors stage, not only a showcase for sizzling performances but also as a panorama of cultural heritage.

Based on the remarkable true story of married power couple Emilio and Gloria Estefan (lightning bolts Omar Lopez-Cepero and Arianna Rosario), who met while making music in Miami. Gloria Maria Milagrosa Fajardo Garcia was 17, studying for a degree in psychology.

As leader of the popular group Miami Latin Boys, Emilio recognized her talent, and it was apparent early on they made quite a team. They eventually married, had a son and daughter, and built an international career that resulted in Gloria becoming one of the best-selling female artists of all-time. (75 million records and counting).

Impossible was never in their vocabulary, and the realities of what they overcame makes for a compelling narrative. Above all, their backstory illustrates how enormous hard work and belief in what they offered paid off.

In the 1980s, their Miami Sound Machine music was a revolutionary fusion of Cuban and American cultures and as an early crossover to other audiences, earned worldwide acclaim through its propulsive beats: “Conga!”, “Rhythms Is Gonna Get You,” “1-2-3,” “Get on Your Feet” and “Live for Loving You” lit up club dance floors. Fame and fortune followed, but not without its struggles.

Initially, Gloria shied away from the spotlight, but that exceptional voice demanded she be front and center. The band became known as Gloria Estefan and The Miami Sound Machine, later dropping the group name. Grammy Awards, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Kennedy Center Honors and two Super Bowl halftime appearances are among her accolades.

The ready-made-for-a-musical opened at New York’s Marquis Theatre in 2015 after a Chicago tryout and closed after 746 performances in 2017. Some of the Muny cast and production team were involved in the Broadway show, including music director Lon Hoyt, who makes the music pop with pizzazz.

Omar Lopez-Cepero and Arianna Rosario. Photo by Phillip Hamer

This biopic was immediately elevated by the casting of real-life husband-and-wife Lopez-Cepero and Rosario as the leads. They make a dynamic duo, easily captivating with sincerity, personality and noticeable chemistry.

As the Queen of Latin pop, Rosario is a dazzling magnetic force delivering hit after catchy hit and conveying warmth and courage in the personal life interludes. During the Broadway run, she was an understudy for Gloria and performed as Rebecca, Gloria’s sister, and in the ensemble.

Since his breakthrough performance in the Muny’s 2017 “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and his tremendous turn as Armando in 2019’s “Paint Your Wagon,” Lopez-Cepero has been notable. Fortunately, he finally gets an opportunity to be in a starring role, and effortlessly rises to the occasion. He was in the original Broadway cast as a supporting player.

He shines as Emilio, who recognized Gloria’s talents and would not be deterred by all the doors shut along the way, opening windows instead and allowing the music to do its magic. His splendid voice soars in “Don’t Want to Lose You.”

Both the Estefans and the headliners project that their marriage is a terrific representation of a true partnership.

Family is a major focus of the musical’s book by Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Oscar winner for co-writing the original screenplay of “Birdman” with Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo.

The delightful Alma Cuervo, who originated the role of Consuelo, Gloria’s supportive “abuela’ (grandma) on Broadway, endeared herself on the larger stage.

And because there is never a musical biography without conflict, that friction is displayed in the rocky relationship with bitter mom, also named Gloria, whose dreams were crushed at a young age.

As the elder Gloria, Natascia Diaz stands out in song – “Mi Tierra” and with Lopez-Cepero in “If I Never Got to Tell You,” a song written by Gloria and her daughter Emily Estefan for this show.

Locally, Diaz won a Kevin Kline Award for best supporting actress in a musical in 2006 for portraying Anita in The Muny’s 2005 “West Side Story” and was nominated for a St. Louis Theater Circle Award as Velma Kelly in the Muny’s “Chicago” in 2012.

While the book follows the template of many other standard biographies, Gloria’s backstory does include some hefty issues. At age 2, she fled from the revolution in Cuba with her family. In the U.S. military, her father served in the Bay of Pigs invasion and volunteered for Vietnam, and Gloria’s tapes of her singing comforted him on the far-away battlefield.

Martin Sola is poignant as Jose Fajardo, the loving dad suffering from multiple sclerosis. He was also a part of the Broadway production.

Adolescent performers are bright lights — Isabella Iannelli as young Gloria and Jordan Vergara as son Nayib and young Emilio respectively. Vergara made his Broadway debut as an alternate in those roles and continued playing them in the national tour.

There is a fun recreation of a Shriners convention in Vegas, with the two youngsters as tiny Elvis impersonators, and the enitre youth ensemble is a sunny presence in the big numbers.

The multi-generational ensemble is noteworthy – and the diversity reflects how America looks today. Bravo to the casting that recognized talent comes in all different shades and sizes, and for the work by dialect coach Gaby Rodriguez Perara.

Director Maggie Burrows, a Muny first-timer, has deftly pulled all the elements together to keep the story on its toes, fortified with athletic choreography by William Carlos Angulo and Hoyt’s percussive beat. The musicians were a finely tuned machine, and the additional percussion gave the pulsating numbers extra oomph.

Costume Designer Leon Dobkowski’s signature swirling mix of bright colors provided flexibility and were pleasing to watch in motion.

The book’s construction makes it necessary to stage small, intimate scenes – such as a kitchen counter, a bedroom, a dressing room and a hospital bed, so I wish the sound had been better, because at times it was subpar, hard to hear the conversations.

Because of Gloria’s explosive career as an entertainer, scenic designer Tim Mackabee has staged multiple numbers with the pop superstar descending a staircase in headlining diva mode, and the band perched in full view – which lends such a vitality.

As does video segments on the LED screen as an ‘up close and personal’ viewpoint – an ingenious move that offers something new. Kudos to video designer Kate Ducey on the innovative work.

The scenic design also features a minimal but effective use of tropical settings in Havana and south Florida.

Act II features the devastating accident in March 1990, when the Estefans’ tour bus collided with a semi-truck in a snowstorm. Gloria suffered severe spinal injuries, and could have never walked again, but a nine-hour surgery, where they inserted two titanium rods, helped her to fully recover – that and an intense focus on rehabilitation, not to mention the encouragement from thousands of fans across the globe.

The finale recalls the stunning moment when Gloria took the stage at the American Music Awards the next year and sang “Coming Out of the Dark,” which she wrote with Emilio and songwriter/bandmate Jon Secada.

As with any triumph in life, persistence is the key, and this musical exemplifies that, just like Gloria’s album, “Into the Light.”

“On Your Feet!” is a breath of fresh air, a jolt of joy in an increasingly scary world. As the joint was jumpin’ on opening night, this indicated patrons could be receptive to a brand-new day.

How lovely that the universal language of music could soothe our souls at a time we badly need a reminder in the enduring, inspiring notion that America still is the land of hope and dreams.

This summer smile was indeed welcome. And a sweet ending with fireworks after tripping the light fantastic.

“On Your Feet!” is presented nightly at 8:15 p.m. from Saturday, Aug. 21 to Friday, Aug. 27, at the Muny outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information, visit www.muny.org. For tickets, visit www.Metrotix.com or the Muny box office, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Sunday at 1 Theatre Drive, or call (314) 361-1900 x1550.

The Megamix Curtain Call. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Muny photos by Phillip Hamer.

Lynn Venhaus has been reviewing the Muny since 2009 and professional theater since 2005, and is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle, established in 2012. A longtime journalist, she has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metropolitan area publications since 1978, earning awards along the way for news and features (and an Illinois Press Association award for reviews before they dropped the category). She has taught writing for the media as an adjunct instructor at three local colleges. A graduate of Illinois State University, she has a mass communications degree with a minor in theater. Among her life achievements are sons Tim and Charlie.