Muny wraps up memorable season

Robert A. Cohn

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The Muny’s well-earned reputation as one of the priceless theatrical gems of Greater St. Louis has been confirmed with its current season, which can be described as “sizzling” not only for the scorching hot weather in which some of the shows were performed, but for the creative energy, stunning production numbers and memorable performances on its stage.

While the season did not include a show with an explicitly Jewish theme, such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” or “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which The Muny has presented several times, most of the seven shows had significant elements of interest to Jewish viewers.

Paul Blake, the highly talented Executive Producer of The Muny, directed “Footloose,” the high-spirited stage adaptation of the original screenplay for the 1984 film starring Kevin Bacon. Blake previously directed The Muny’s fantastic production of “Beauty and the Beast.”

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In both productions, his love of musical theater and all its potential was manifest with the quality of the production numbers which took full advantage of the vast Muny stage.

“Be My Guest” was a real show-stopper in “Beauty and the Beast,” and the more modest numbers in “Footloose” were both endearing and engaging, as were the casts, crews and musicians.

Not only does Blake draw upon his extensive experience in the “Big Leagues” of the Broadway stage, but he makes extensive use of home-grown talent to augment and fill out the stage in the various production numbers.

Judah Levine, a former St. Louisan now residing in Boston, proudly informed us that his teenage son Eitan Kling-Levine performed as part of the Youth Chorus for “Footloose.”

The Kling-Levine family are very proud of their extensive St. Louis roots, which Judah Levine’s late father-in-law, Rabbi Simcha Kling, who was Assistant Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Amoona from 1948-1951.

The family resided for a time in the Delmar Loop. They are also justly proud of Eitan’s participation in the Youth Chorus in “Footloose.”

To the credit of Paul Blake and the other directors of the shows at The Muny, the Youth Chorus and the young local dancers of all ages who take part in the various production numbers blend seamlessly with the professional cast members. In “Footloose,” Curtis Holbrook plays Ren McCormack (the role played by Kevin Bacon in the film), and Jennifer Prescott plays his mom, Ethel. Their father and husband walked out on the mother and son, who move from urban and hip Chicago to Bomont, Texas, where the tiny town has banned dancing at the local high school at the urging of a righteous preacher, Rev. Shaw Moore, whose son had been killed in an accident following an earlier dance Jeff McCarthy is superb in the challenging role of Reverend Moore, avoiding easy stereotypes to present a truly conflicted man. Dee Hoty is believable as his wife Vi Moore, who is both supportive and conflicted towards their rebellious daughter Ariel, engagingly portrayed by Meggie Cansler. “Footloose” has elements of “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “Grease,” and other dance-themed shows, and The Muny production is lively and satisfying.

In preparing for this wrap-up of the current Muny season, I went back to my 2007 review of “Songs of St. Louis Summers,” by Judith Newmark, the longtime Theater Critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This splendid book celebrates the uniqueness of The Muny, which was founded in 1919, and which has astounded veteran superstars who have appeared on its vast stage. Newmark writes, “In terms of size, there isn’t much to rival The Muny, the biggest outdoor theater in the United States, and one of the biggest anywhere. Even its statistics boggle the imagination. The Muny seats an audience of 10,799. Looking for a comparison? A typical Broadway theater seats about 1,200.”

Indeed, when many St. Louisans who like Newmark grew up loving The Muny actually see their first Broadway plays, they are struck by how puny most theaters on the Great White Way are in comparison to the gigantic Muny stage and seating capacity. Newmark refutes a Muny Myth that has long been believed: “A favorite St. Louis urban legend isn’t true. No Broadway star ever stepped onto The Muny stage, looked out at the size of the house, and fainted,” she wrote in her book.

It is truly amazing that as of this writing none of the performers fainted from the scorching triple-digit heat in which they cavorted, often wearing heavy costumes for such productions as “Cats.” But the casts and crew soldiered on through the broiling heat indices and braving occasional thunder and lightening.

Among the major Jewish stars who have appeared in previous Muny shows are Zero Mostel and Theodore Bikel, who played Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof”; the nice Jewish girl named Betty Persky who took the stage name Lauren Bacall and became Humphrey Bogart’s wife, and Joel Grey, who is best known for his Tony Award-winning performance as the MC in Cabaret.

Another significant Jewish element in the 90+ year history of The Muny was the four-decade career of Muny General Manager William Zalken, who retired in 1975, and who was known as “The Granddaddy of The Muny.” His long career spanned the early days of The Municipal Opera and its evolution to its present incarnation of presenter of major Broadway shows each season. His legacy is carried forward by Paul Blake and by Dennis Reagan, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Muny, the latter of whom started his long association as an usher when he was a typical St. Louis teenager.

Some other Jewish observations about the season, which ends with “Show Boat,” Aug. 9-15, featuring the incredibly wonderful Michel Bell, who returns to The Muny as Joe, a role he performed in 1992 and 2003, and for which he won a Tony Award for Hal Prince’s production of the show. Bell’s rendition of “Old Man River” has received prolonged standing ovations and shouts of bravo each time he has graced The Muny stage. Bell also starred in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” as Porgy, a role he has done worldwide.

A few other highlights of the season with Jewish aspects. “The Sound of Music,” aptly called “the loveliest musical ever written, is set against the historical backdrop of the Anchluss in which Nazi Germany absorbed the previously independent nation of Austria. Tom Hewitt plays Captain von Trapp, the widowed Austrian anti-Nazi nationalist who is vehemently opposed to being swallowed up by the Third Reich. Ashley Brown plays Maria, the role immortalized by Julie Andrews, the aspiring and free-spirited nun who becomes a nanny in the von Trapp household for his brood of motherless children. What many fans of the show may not realize is that the von Trapp family really existed and the story in the musical is essentially fact-based. The von Trapp’s indeed escaped Austria just after the 1938 Anchluss and eventually settled in Vermont when they managed a popular resort.

In the closing scene, which takes place after the Nazis have taken over, the Austrian Musical Festival takes place in front of a giant Nazi swastika flag which dominates the stage with its blood red, white circle and the “spider-like” swastika. The play would have been intellectually dishonest if the flag had NOT been present, but as a Jew, I found the image to be both jarring and upsetting. Recently the ADL decided that not all swastikas scrawled on walls are necessarily “hate crimes” against Jews. But the sight of a large Nazi flag, even after all these years, indeed strikes fear and dread in the heart of any Jew, and many others who realize that 5o million people including six million Jews perished under that symbol of evil.

“Titanic,” not to be confused with the James Cameron movie of the same title, is a musical based on the sinking of what was then the world’s largest luxury liner, which was supposed to be “unsinkable,” but which went down after striking an iceberg on April 14-15, 1912. It was a challenge to tell this tragic story in the form of a musical, especially on the stage of The Muny, which normally hosts cheerful and light-hearted shows. It is just impossible for the audience to block out the knowledge of the ultimate and universally known fate of the ship. Some 1,517 passengers died, while only 705 were rescued by the “Carpathian.” Several prominent and wealthy passengers perished in the shipwreck, including two major Jewish figures: Isidor Straus, who with his brother Nathan was a founding partner of the original Macy’s Department Store in New York, and Benjamin Guggenheim (and his wife Florence Seligman Guggenheim), one of seven sons of Solomon R. Guggenheim, after whom the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in New York is named. Benjamin and Florence were the parents of a daughter, Marguerite (Peggy) Guggenheim, who became one of the world’s most prominent collectors of modern art. The Muny’s production featured the wonderful acting talent of local favorite Joneal Joplin in the important role of the “Titanic’s” Captain Smith.

The season also included an excellent production of “Damn Yankees,” the classic tale of a man who sold his soul to the Devil, Mr. Applegate, in order that the hapless Washington Senators could win the pennant against the once unbeatable New York Yankees. When Applegate gave his fire and brimstone speech the night I saw the show, lightning and thunder were in the background, giving the scene an eerie and amusing natural set of props.

I could go on and on, but this wrap-up is already longish even for our online edition. Suffice it to say: The Muny once again has proven that it continues to be one of the major assets to Greater St. Louis, and promises to continue that tradition of greatness in summer musical theater entertainment into the future.

I could go on and on, but this piece is already longish even for our online edition. Suffice it to say, The Muny once again proves that it continues to be one of the major assets to Greater St. Louis, and promises to continue that tradition of greatness and solid entertainment into the future.

Much of the above was written before I had a chance to see “Show Boat,” the season’s final show, which The Muny was presenting for a record 15th time. Yes, the show has big time Jewish connections, having been created by two iconic Jewish geniuses: Jerome Kern, who wrote the music and Oscar Hammerstein II, who did the book and lyrics based on the novel by Edna Ferber.

My wife Barbara and I were present for last Monday’s performance, when St. Louis was experiencing heat indices in triple-digits plus.

Even though the earlier shows, including “Cats” with its confining costumes and lively dancing put the cast, crew and musicians through the paces, I cannot recall a more punishing hot and humid night under the stars at The Muny, and almost bailed out at intermission. With the help of an emergency dose of a huge ice cream treat and a new bottle of cold water and glass of ice, I elected to stay, and was treated to one of the best Muny shows I have ever seen. The somewhat cornJLGTy story line still has enduring qualities, and the romantic Jewish sensibilities of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein shine though the lyrics of so many classic songs, such as “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” Make Believe” and of course “Ol Man River,” sung once again by the show-stopping Michel Bell in the role of Joe.

To say that Michel Bell has a one of a kind, resonant, booming voice is an understatement. One might say that he makes James Earl Jones or the late Orson Wells sound like Pee Wee Herman by comparison.

Bell belts out “Ol’ Man River” in its entirety two times in the course of the show, with excerpts in other scenes. The audience

loved every perfection enunciated syllable from this immense talent.

The show was brilliantly directed by Harold Goldfaden, and

wonderfully choreographed by Peggy Taphorn, augmented by outstanding scenery, costumes and the distinctive show biz touches of Executive Producer Paul Blake.

Before the Monday night performance, Paul Blake with his signature blue blazer and light colored slacks greeted the audience with his usual humorous banter and spoke excitedly about the season. He also announced officially that the 2011 season will be his last as Executive Producer. causing many in the audience to audibly sigh in regret. “This is not the time to get teary, I will be back next season.”

For the past 22 years, Paul Blake has built upon the now 92-year tradition of excellence in musical theater, a distinctly American idiom of entertainment. Along with Steve Woolf at The Rep and Kathleen Sizter at The New Jewish Theatre, Paul Blake is a community treasure, and we look forward to his finale season with excitement and gratitude.