By Lynn Venhaus
The sights and sounds of nights gone by are such a welcome sentimental journey on the exciting new online Muny Mondays.
But the variety show is not all a “Remember When” montage, and that is what sets it apart. With a fresh batch of pixie dust, the Muny’s second episode of its smash hit Summer Variety Hour Live more than met expectations after such a sensational series launch July 20.
If you were curious as to how they could top the inaugural show, now that we know the formula, one look at the lineup beforehand answered that quickly. Tony nominee Taylor Louderman singing live under the Culver Pavilion! Tony nominee and fan favorite Rob McClure, versatile veteran of six Muny shows, singing “Suddenly Seymour” with his wife Maggie Lakis, who has been in two Muny musicals, from their home in Philadelphia. McClure’s Muny debut was “Little Shop of Horrors” in 2011, so that was fitting. The cast of 2017’s spectacular “The Little Mermaid,” lead by Commodore Primous III as Sebastian, reuniting to sing a buoyant “Under the Sea.” I mean, the deck was stacked.
The best way to describe the ebb and flow of the carefully curated selection of acts is to compare it to a multi-course gourmet dinner especially crafted to include favorite dishes, comfort food, bold choices and unique taste treats, every bite bursting with flavor.
When the “Wow” factors were unveiled — those unforgettable Muny moments that you will always recall with awe, so grateful to have experienced it in person – they blew me away. It isn’t hard to pick five, ten or 20 out of your head if you are a regular. (We probably share some of the same ones – we’ll have to compare notes).
And this supersonic flash came from two performers I saw in ensembles but did not know their names: Nkeki Obi-Melekwe and Chloe O. Davis. I will never forget them now.
Nkeki soared singing “If You Knew My Story” from “Bright Star” during her time, a selection to reinforce color-blind casting. Nkeki, a Michigan graduate, appeared in the Muny’s 2017 “All Shook Up” and went on to play Tina Turner in “Tina the Musical” in London’s West End in April 2019, then move to Broadway in October.
If you are unfamiliar with “Bright Star,” the musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, it came out the same year “Hamilton” did and lost the Tony Award for Best Musical to the landmark show in 2016.
Chloe O. Davis, a dancer who grew up in St. Louis and was in “All Shook Up” and “The Wiz” in recent years, was featured in “My Tribute to Black Broadway and Black Choreography: I Thrive Now Because You Dared Then,” a dance she conceived and choreographed.
As she used Forest Park as her stage, she gave us a history lesson that stirred “all the feels.” She created the styles of famous black choreographers, using audio and visual clips in addition to her dance moves – East St. Louis’ international icon Katherine Dunham, George Faison, Debbie Allen, Hope Clarke, Gregory Hines, Donald Byrd, Bill T. Jones and Camille A. Brown among them.
Moving. Powerful. Elegant. Truly a shining moment.
A delightful song-and-dance interlude was courtesy of three dynamos Maya Bowles, Trevor Michael Schmidt and Gabi Stapula, whose high-spirited “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” from “Sweet Charity” captured our anxiety and their eagerness to get back to the business of entertaining. These chorus gypsies reminded us how ensemble cohesiveness is so important to any big splashy musical.
Gabi also works with the Muny Teens, and their fun-loving mashup of “Bring On the Monsters” from “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” and “Drive It Like You Stole It” from “Sing Street” again showcased how talented some local students are – and their sunny dispositions. I’m a big fan of the 2016 movie “Sing Street,” which is writer-director John Carney’s third film about the transforming power of music (“Once” and “Begin Again”), and its stage adaptation was set to open on Broadway in April after rave reviews off-Broadway.
The power ‘hour’ also featured behind-the-scenes stories about what’s happening at The Muny, including being able to pull off the stunning fireworks at the Centennial Gala, and the amusing game show throwback Munywood Squares. With interesting fun facts, hosted by Gordon Greenberg and featuring nine Muny performers in the Zoom grid, including E. Faye Butler, J. Harrison Ghee, Ann Harada, Raymond J. Lee, Vicki Lewis, Steve Rosen, Jeffrey Schecter, John Scherer and Christopher Sieber. This week’s good sport contestants were photographer Phillip Hamer and Muny company manager Sue Greenberg. Fun remembering the raccoon who waddled on to the stage in “The Addams Family” in 2014!
On an intermittent rainy night, star Taylor Louderman was accompanied by four socially distanced musicians, to sing live the power ballad “Astonishing” from “Little Women.” Always nice to include a female empowerment song, this one from Louisa May Alcott’s timeless and timely heroine, Jo March. From Bourbon, Mo., 60 miles southwest of St. Louis, Taylor went from Muny Teen to Tony nominee as Regina George in “Mean Girls.” She made her Broadway debut in 2012’s “Bring It On!,” has been in seven Muny shows and won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for last summer’s “Kinky Boots.” (And this year, finished her bachelor’s degree that she had started at Michigan in 2009 and was married five weeks ago to Brooks Toth).
The archival footage of past summer shows is a fond trip down memory lane, starting with Muny titans Beth Leavel and Ben Davis in 2015’s “Oklahoma!” Leavel, Tony winner for “The Drowsy Chaperone” and nominee for ‘The Prom,” is a frequent St. Louis Theater Circle Award nominee, winning for her Mamma Rose in 2018 “Gypsy.” Davis, seen last year as Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls,” has been nominated multiple times, and once joked during an interview that he is the ‘Susan Lucci’ of the Circle Awards.
Davis was in the now legendary production of “Spamalot” in 2013 as Sir Galahad. Host Mike Isaacson introduced “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which holds the distinction of being the most popular song at funerals, pointing out how weather affected the show. I remember that on opening night June 17, a steady rain was falling after torrential downpours for days preceding it. So, there was little opportunity to rehearse outdoors. The audience for the show opener of the 95th season was so eager to see this Muny premiere that we came in droves with our umbrellas — and were mightily rewarded.
It’s a night I’ll never forget. During the curtain call, actor John O’Hurley, playing King Arthur, stopped the show to introduce Monty Python founder and show creator Eric Idle! Whoops, cheers and thunderous applause! Everyone on their feet. I turned to my companion and said: “We are in the presence of a Python!” Oh, be still my heart. It was pure bliss – he led us in “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” after mentioning this was the largest audience to ever see the musical and he wanted to see if we could get in the Guinness Book of World Records for our sing-a-long.
Oh, what a night! I had the good fortune to interview John O’Hurley later that fall when he was touring as Billy Flynn in “Chicago,” and we had a pleasant conversation about that enchanted evening.
Another splendid memory was shared with the incredible “We’re in the Money” from the extraordinary 2016 production of “42nd Street,” choreographed by Denis Jones, St. Louis Theater Circle Award winner. That curtain call – go see it on YouTube – as the cast cascaded down a staircase will go down as my favorite (next to “A Chorus Line”) in Muny history.
All these elements are what make summer nights special at the Muny, and spotlighting the world-class talent – from the musical theater majors from the best schools in the country to the stars with Broadway credentials — who come together in Forest Park – is one I like to emphasize. Years ago, seasons were headlined by ‘names’ – mostly from TV – and while recognizable, I much prefer having the best talent possible give us their all on that stage. Drama geek that I am, I read all the bios and notice who returns to the Muny, who creates magic on the stage, or is given the part of a lifetime.
And in that spirit, the Summer Variety Hour Live emphasizes how many parts make each show happen.
And it is a warm, familiar embrace at a time we all need a hug.
On July 20, The Muny 2020 Summer Variety Hour Live! drew more than 30,000 viewers from across the U.S. and around the world. This total sets a new, record-breaking first in The Muny’s live-streaming history.
On July 27, we were connected by the calypso beat of newly crowned EGOT winner Alan Menken, the banjo picking of brilliant Steve Martin, the Britpop synthesizer of ‘80s New Wave, the zaniness of silly comic geniuses, homages to Busby Berkeley and Broadway chestnuts, the triumph of a ‘local’ small-town girl with a dream, sweetness, sincerity, showmances and people who think sitting under those stars in St. Louis is like coming home.
These shows (5 total, 3 left) are exclusive, one-time-only streams and will not be available after the Thursday night airing. The July 30 re-airing will include audio description and captions. The link is: youtube.com/themunytv
The Muny’s online 2020 season is sponsored by World Wide Technology. Episode 1 was made possible by US Bank and Episode 2 by Edward Jones. They announce the next lineup every Wednesday.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.