Play: 90 Years of Muny Magic
Group: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: July 15 through 20
Tickets: From free to $64; contact 314-534-1111, www.metrotix.com or at The Muny box office
Story: The Municipal Opera of St. Louis, aka The Muny, has had an illustrious history at its famed location in Forest Park. According to The Muny’s web site, the first production in that area was a 1916 presentation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It with a cast that included Sidney Greenstreet, who later had prominent roles in the classic films Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. In 1917 a week-long run of Aida became The Muny’s official inaugural presentation, and in 1919 The Muny began its run of annual summer series with Robin Hood.
To celebrate its 90th season, Muny executive director Paul Blake has written and directed a revue that pays homage to the several eras of musical theater that have transpired since The Muny’s debut, separated into sections titled “Operetta,” “1920s & 1930s,” “Rodgers & Hammerstein,” “1940s & 1950s,” “1960s,” “Contemporary” and “Love Songs,” along with an opening and a grand finale.
Highlights: Despite nearly a century of material, this exclusive revue has precious few highlights. Most notable are two wonderful numbers from the opening act, namely a rousing performance of Varsity Drag from the musical Good News that showcases an energetic dancing performance by Meredith Patterson and The Muny ensemble and a soaring, heartfelt rendition of Ol’ Man River from The Muny’s most often performed musical, Show Boat, by Michel Bell, whose rich bass voice resonates throughout the amphitheater.
The second act includes an amusing version of Hello, Dolly!, with Muny favorite Lee Roy Reams doing entertaining impressions of Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman, and then being joined by Ken Page in an amusing “dueling impressions of Pearlie Mae” bit. Additionally, Erin Davie and Peter Lockyer are endearing as star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony singing the touching ballad, Tonight, from West Side Story.
Blake overcomes his writing and directing deficiencies on this show by putting together a stellar troupe of singers and dancers that includes James Clow, Kim Crosby, Leslie Denniston, Francis Jue, Dirk Lombard, Graham Rowat and Betsy Wolfe in addition to the aforementioned players. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Muny production without a teeming youth ensemble that fills the stage on numbers such as March of the Toy Soldiers from Babes in Toyland and 76 Trombones from The Music Man.
Other Info: Unfortunately, Blake has padded the production with entirely too much patter between numbers, which serves to deaden any momentum rather than provide illuminating background about The Muny as an institution and America’s oldest and largest outdoor professional theater. A bit with three kids asking Page, Reams and other performers about getting to be 90 years old, for example, wears thin quickly.
Additionally, several overly long performance bits from shows as varied as The King and I, Carousel and Gypsy drag noticeably. And numbers such as The Impossible Dream from Man of La Mancha, the title tune from Oklahoma! and even the finale, Lullaby of Broadway from 42nd Street, fail to deliver their original impact when lifted out of their element and dropped with a thud into this cramped and cluttered revue.
There is, however, excellent support by musical director Michael Horsley and the orchestra. Michael Anania’s scenic design incorporates posters of many past Muny seasons as well as some simple backdrops, all effectively lit by David Lander. The diverse numbers are choreographed smoothly by Kevin Backstrom, Kelli Barclay, Gemze de Lappe, Liza Gennaro and Dirk Lumbard.
Certainly, there’s something for every Muny fan in 90 Years of Muny Magic, but unfortunately it takes too long for these magicians to perform their tricks. The result is a mostly flat and faltering frolic on that magnificent Muny stage.
Rating: A 3 on a scale of 1-to-5.