By Lynn Venhaus
As frothy as a cappuccino and sweet as cotton candy, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” took hold of The Muny stage as a swirling kaleidoscope of color, a glittery burst of cheer from a youthful ensemble that brings it home.

In the first full season after the challenging post-pandemic years 2020-2021, The Muny wraps up a groundbreaking summer with this beloved big, splashy musical that has been here six times. Last produced in 2012, the show first arrived in 1986 and returned in 1997, 2002 and 2007.

With its technical razzle-dazzle matched by the effervescent Muny Kids and Teens in the youth ensemble and children’s choir, the entire company looked like they were at the happiest place on earth.

That engaged the crowd, and the charismatic principals Jason Gotay as golden child Joseph, Jessica Vosk as the regal Narrator, and Mykal Kilgore as the swaggering Pharoah elevated the wispy material, delivering knock-out performances.

Narrator and Potiphar. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

However, the show is not without heartache and adversity – with a turnaround because of strength, perseverance, and blessings, for it is based on the Old Testament Book of Genesis tale of Jacob, his favorite son Joseph, his 11 other sons, and that famous coat of many colors.  

After Joseph’s jealous brothers sell him into slavery, he impresses the Egyptian noble Potiphar, but then rejects his wife’s amorous advances, and is thrown in jail. While locked up, Joseph’s talent for interpreting dreams is put to good use. He ingratiates himself with the Pharoah because he offers a solution to the country’s famine, and that stroke of fortune results in Joseph becoming the Pharoah’s right-hand man. He is eventually reunited with his family.

In the stylized re-imagining by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, the story is told through song and dance.

Considered innovative in the 1970s, the musical comedy has expanded over time, and is now regarded as a family-friendly favorite staged by thousands of schools and groups in the U.S. and across the pond. 

The EGOT duo began this journey collaborating for the second time in 1968. Commissioned by a music teacher who was a family friend of Webber’s, their 15-minute pop cantata was performed at the Colet Court School in London. After more tinkering, it was recorded by Decca Records in 1969.

When their next piece, the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” skyrocketed them to fame in 1971, the earlier musical was stretched to 35 minutes for the Edinburgh International Festival the next year. More modifications followed, and the modern format was staged in 1974. It was mounted on Broadway in 1982 and nominated for seven Tony Awards. Revivals, tours and a 1999 direct-to-video film starred Donny Osmond followed.

Like the other pop Biblical musical of that era, Stephen Schwartz’s “Godspell,” it is re-interpreted for every presentation. Consider this the theme park ride version, with the youngsters displaying as much energy as those attending summer cheerleading camps.

Photo by Phillip Hamer.

It’s a swell dance party, briskly performed in several celebratory scenes and elaborate pastiches – including countrified “One More Angel in Heaven/Hoedown,” the French-inspired lament “Those Canaan Days,” island-flavored “Benjamin Calypso” and the grandmaster flashy finale “Megamix.”

The pleasant pop-py tunes “Any Dream Will Do” and “Go, Go, Go Joseph.” are certain to be hummable on your way home.

Music director Charlie Alterman, who won last year’s St Louis Theater Circle Award for “Chicago,” is adept at lively shows with many moving parts and his orchestras are a treat to listen to — and he’s aware of the Muny’s pit challenges this season.

Of course, a show directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes would seize the day. Rhodes, who is known for his athletic and acrobatic dances, returns after successes helming “Jersey Boys,” “Paint Your Wagon” and that stunning tap number to “Putting on the Ritz” in 2016’s “Young Frankenstein.”

This is a show that requires a special set of skills, and Rhodes’ crisp and snappy choreography is flat-out fun. He was aided by associate choreographer Lee Wilkins and dance captain Emilie Renier.

In its last national tour in 2014, the ingenious three-time Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler directed and choreographed a fresh interpretation that ran at the Fox Theatre that spring. That show featured American Idol finalist Ace Young as Joseph and his wife, fellow finalist Diana DeGarmo, as the Narrator.

The role of Joseph is often filled by a pop star – and teen heartthrobs David Cassidy, Andy Gibb and Donny Osmond have played the lead before. (And first American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini, who has played various roles at the Muny, was Joseph in 2012.)

At the Muny, Jason Gotay has won over hearts as a charming leading man, appearing as Prince Eric in “The Little Mermaid,” Prince Topher in “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” and as Jack in “Into the Woods.”

His strong velvety vocals emphasize he is no lightweight, heart-tugging in “Close Every Door.”  He commands the stage confidently, capably leading the large cast in the group numbers.

Mykal Kilgore as the Pharoah. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

However, the showstopper in this production is Mykal Kilgore.

One of my favorites since I saw him at the Muny Magic concert at the Sheldon in 2017, the affable Kilgore slays as the megawatt Pharoah. It’s as if James Brown and Little Richard had a baby.

 In a departure from the previous Elvis-like personas, Kilgore reaches back to his R&B roots for “Song of the King,” bringing the house down. The Pharoah’s stage time is brief, but his impact is mighty.

Jessica Vosk makes her Muny debut, playing a hands-on narrator who just doesn’t just observe the action from the sidelines, but propels it along. Here, she is a surrogate mother hen to the youngsters as she tells the tale.

Vosk has the powerful pipes to fill an arena and is well-suited for this grand production. She has played the role before, in the 50th anniversary show at the Lincoln Center, and is remarkably assured while the action bubbles up around her.

Other noteworthy debuts are multi-hyphenate Eric Jordan Young in the dual role of well-meaning Jacob and flamboyant Potiphar, and Darron Hayes as playful Judah, who takes the lead in “Benjamin Calypso.”

The adult choir is chock-full of Muny regulars, and some familiar castmates are playing brothers. Dynamic Harris Milgrim, a standout as Benjamin in last year’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” is again as Reuben in “One More Angel.”

Sean Ewing, in his third season at the Muny, is second son Simeon, amusing in “Old Canaan Days.”

Not all the hijinks work, for the mashups often are silly, and the gaudy pageantry can easily slide into trivial frivolity, but that’s the problem with the show itself. As the years ago on, they keep gilding the lily, adding more to an already over-the-top show. But it remains a huge crowd-pleaser.

And the joyous look on those kids’ faces on stage said it all. (I counted 40 in the youth ensemble and 14 in the children’s choir, in addition to the 19 in ensemble, not to mention principals.)

Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Edward E. Haynes Jr., the award-winning scenic designer for “Smokey Joe’s Café” last year, combines glitz, a Skittles rainbow of bold colors, and Egyptian symbols for the second act, in a whimsical set reminiscent of Tim Burton and the Marvel superheroes’ cinematic universe.

In a stunning backdrop, he references King Tutankhamen’s gold headdress in a giant piece anchoring a fancy staircase with neon piping..

Video designer Greg Emetaz is in sync with Haynes’ vision, and an extension of the gold-plated theme uniting the looks is on the LED screens.

Costume designer Leon Dobkowski references Vegas showgirls, exotic images and B.C. looks to create sparkly outfits and a sunny vibe. His elaborate headdresses are something special to see. The different gold fabrics stand out in garments, and kudos to wig designer Kelly Jordan for the Pharoah’s massive ‘do.

Jason Lyons’ lighting design capitalizes on the wonder and magical parts, and smartly ascertains between the dreamy sequences and the dark times.

It’s fitting that The Muny focused on home, family, relying on each other and connection for the last show of the 104th season, particularly after what they endured from mid-June to now with the double-whammy of back-to-back floods, extreme heat – even by St. Louis standards (oh you layered Edwardian Londoners in “Mary Poppins”!), and a new strain of COVID-19 on the rise in the region (but thanks to understudies and swings, the shows went on).

In his annual farewell address, Mike Isaacson, executive producer and artistic director since 2011, joked that the season was ‘biblical,’ and who could argue?

Known for its fizzy fun, “Joseph” delivered a spectacle to end the season on a high-spirited note.

If you think of the Muny in terms of a summer vacation, “Chicago” was nightlife fun, “Camelot” was a Renaissance Faire, “Mary Poppins” was a trip to the Magic House, “Legally Blonde” was a class reunion, “Sweeney Todd” was visiting the Louvre, “The Color Purple” was the Smithsonian and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was a trip to Disneyland.

Until we meet again under the stars in Forest Park, here’s raising a glass to a summer tradition that I am grateful for, and will never ever take for granted.

Cast of ‘Joseph.’ Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The Muny presents the musical “Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” Aug.13-18 at 8:15 pm. Performances take place on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information, visit www. muny.org.

Eric Jordan Young. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

By C.B. Adams

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

– “In Memoriam:27”, Alfred Lord Tennyson

To key off Tennyson’s philosophical proposition, Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s “Awakenings,” at the Loretto-Hilton Center’s Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre through June 25, explores a similar notion. If you were a patient trapped for decades by encephalitis lethargica , spending your waking moments in constant stupor and inertia, would you agree to allow a doctor like the neurologist Oliver Sacks to experimentally administer a drug called levodopa, or L Dopa, that could alleviate the disease’s debilitating effects? And, would you consent if you knew the risks – that the effects might not last long and that you would still suffer, like a sort of Rip Van Winkle, from spending decades isolated from the world’s events and your own maturity and development?

Is it better, then, to have been awakened than not at all?

 That’s a powerful philosophical question dreamed up in Sack’s book “Awakenings” that presented a series of fascinating case reports of patients trapped by encephalitis lethargica. It was also dreamed up into the eponymous Hollywood film (starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams), a documentary, a ballet and a play by Harold Pinter. Sacks himself dreamed it could even be this opera, a pandemic delayed premiere by OTSL this season. 

Andres Acosta and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

This production draws the audience into the clinical but dreamlike world even before the score begins. The opening set evokes an impersonal, sterile hospital setting as nurses slowly wheel in slumped patients behind a series of moveable glass walls. Though not “pretty,” the harsh, set design by Allen Moyer is visually affecting and well-matched to the opera’s melancholic intensity (including a fantastic use of video projections by Greg Emetaz), especially as illuminated by Christoper Akerlind’s lighting designs.

The “Awakenings” score, performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Robert Kalb, is excellent if not exactly memorable. The music weaves around the characters and action without calling attention to itself.

Baritone Jarrett Porter sings Dr. Sacks, and his rich voice is well-matched to the demands of the role as a deeply empathetic caregiver. Porter’s voice is well-matched to  the bass-baritone of  David Pittsinger, who voices Sacks’s naysaying boss, Dr. Podsnap. Pittsinger’s presence and deep voice provide believable authority.

One of the key reasons “Awakenings” shines is the opera’s balancing of multiple “awakenings” by Sacks, who grapples with his sexuality in a subplot, as well as three patients that representing the 20 in real life. They provide more than yeoman’s work as they must sit in wheelchairs – all trembles and contortions – and then transform into walking/talking human beings then return to their un-awakened states.

Susannah Phillips and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Marc Molomot, tenor, plays a middle-aged Leonard, whose aging mother (sung beautifully and dutifully by Katherine Goeldner) has been reading to him every day since he succumbed to his condition. Molomot confidently provides a Leonard who hasn’t emotionally matured since adolescence. He’s a boy in a man’s body, which makes life exciting, challenging and ultimately disturbing. Molomot plays Leonard with aplomb.

One of the highlights of “Awakenings” is Leonard’s duet with Rodriguez, his male nurse, sung by the tenor Andres Acosta. Acosta proves there are no parts too small to stand out.

Another of the trio of patients is Rose, engagingly sung by Susannah Phillips. Rose is an optimistic yet dreamy character, still living in an interrupted past that includes a long-gone love. Phillips’s performance and engaging voice make it easy to start identifying with her fairytale outlook and then mourn as she returns to her former state.

Completing the trio is Miriam H, sung by soprano Adrienne Danrich. Miriam’s story is as unique and ultimately tragic as her cohorts. Like Rose, Miriam’s story moves from silence to astonishment as she discovers that her family considered her dead and that she has a daughter and even granddaughter. Danrich’s performance and beautiful voice elevate the tragedy of her return to silence.

As directed by James Robinson, “Awakenings” is a compelling experience – one that calls to mind Bob Dylan’s Series of Dreams:  “…Thinking of a series of dreams / Where the time and the tempo drag, / And there’s no exit in any direction…”

Long after the performances fade, the philosophical and ethical questions posed by “Awakenings” linger. Would have the lives of Mirian, Rose and Leonard (and perhaps even Sacks himself) have been better if they hadn’t been intervened by L Dopa? And who should be allowed to make that choice? One person’s dream may be another’s nightmare.

Jarrett Porter as Dr Oliver Sacks. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

By CB AdamsContributing WriterTo mix musical genres – and to begin with the finale of Fire Shut Up in My Bones – this new “opera in jazz” answers the same rhetorical question raised in “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds: “What’s it gonna take to make a dream survive? / Who’s got the touch to calm the storm inside?” The rhetorical answer in general is each of us and in particular, it is the opera’s hero-protagonist, Charles.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis premiered Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an opera that bends – if not downright breaks – the style, presentation and story arc of what we think of as traditional opera. If your idea of opera is a stage full of European white people voicing the story and words of some dead white dude, then Fire will surprise you in multiple ways – not the least of which is the all-African-American cast.

First is the source material. Fire is adapted
from the memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist Charles
Blow, rather than fables, fairy tales or fiction. Fire was created by
librettist Kasi Lemmons (director/writer/actress) and composer Terence
Blanchard (film score composer/noted jazz trumpeter). This is Blanchard’s
second commission from OTSL; the first was Champion presented in 2013.

The narrative is presented in a book-ended fashion, with the opening and concluding scenes set in Charles’ home. Correspondingly, the reason the Charles has returned to his hometown (physically and metaphorically) is explained at the beginning and reaches its resolution at the end. Within those bookends, Fire follows a linear timeline that satisfyingly links the beginning with the ending.

Jeremy Denis, Davone Tines and Karen SlackOf course, Fire is an opera and peddles the usual Big Themes (Love, Infidelity, Violence, Murder), but like the good gumbo that it is, it adds sexual molestation, sexual identity, abject poverty and fraternity hazing – not to mention the challenges and monotony of working in a chicken processing plant! Instead of Nordic mountains or an Italian villa, Fire is set in the rural idyll of Gibsland, Louisiana, with a set design that practically exudes the heat and humidity of the American South.

The music of Fire leans away from traditional Western European orchestration and into a unique patois of American jazz, folk, blues and big band performed by an orchestra/jazz combo hybrid, conducted by William Long.

 Fire efficiently packs Blow’s entire memoir into a couple of captivating hours’ worth of opera. It cinematically – and efficiently – quick-cuts from scene to scene (home shack, porch, farm fields, chicken factory, farmland, molestation bed, college fraternity party) leading to the denouement and resolution of Charles’ conflicts. The success of OTSL’s Fire is attributable in no small part to the production – weighty and evocative without being heavy – helmed by director James Robinson, making his OTSL debut.

At the premiere, the talents of Allen Moyer (set
design), Christopher Akerlind (lighting design) and Greg Emetaz (video
projection engineer), cohered as the stage morphs from scene to scene using
movable set pieces in tempo with the music, singing and action (kudos, too, to
choreographer Seán
Curran and Tom Watson, wig and makeup design). The attention to telling details
extended to the palpable bloodiness of the chicken processors (more kudos to
James Schuette for costume design here and throughout). Even the table cloths
in a nightclub scene looked like old-fashioned bottle caps, evoking the
pleasure to be found there.

Equally impressive were the principal performers of Fire. Blanchard and Lemmons solved the
challenge of presenting the lead character from age six to adult (in sung
roles) by using both a child, the delightful Jeremy Denis as Char’es-Baby, and the
adult Charles, the bass-baritone Davóne Tines. They were often in scene together, with
Charles providing context and counsel like a sort of Jiminy Cricket to his own
younger self. Along with several other young actors, it was engaging to watch
children on stage do something more meaningful than add background.

One of the opera’s pivotal scenes is the molestation of
the Char’es-Baby by a cousin, and it was one of the highlights of this
production – harrowing and nauseating without being prurient, pervey or porny.

Some of the opera’s ensemble played multiple roles, the
most obvious of which was soprano Julia Bullock who played the Chorus-like Destiny
and Loneliness as well as Greta Charles’ love-interest for a time. Bullock
transitioned among these characters easily, without calling attention to her
ability to fully inhabit and portray them. No good Southern story is complete
without a sassy and strong mama, and soprano Karen Slack as Billie, Charles’s
mother, is no exception. Her performance commanded the audience to fully
experience her character rather than sit back passively and watch and listen.

Davone Tines, Karen Slack in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”In a way, it is Billie who has the last word in Fire as Charles seems to accept her recurring advice that “sometimes you gotta leave it in the road.” To mix musical genres again, there’s a similar sentiment in “The Wiz.” It’s the notion that “Don’t you carry nothing / That might be a load.” Fire leaves on the hopeful if unsung note that moving on in life Charles will indeed “Ease On Down the Road.”

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented the world premiere of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” June 15-29 at the Loretto-Hilton Center. Fore more information visit www.experienceopera.com

“Fire
Shut Up My Bones”
Opera Theatre of St. Louis
June 15 – June 29
Loretto-Hilton Centerwww.experienceopera.com
314-961-0644