By Lynn Venhaus
Among the many thousands of people tuning in to the Muny’s Summer Variety Hour Live! on Monday nights, a health care professional told Mike Isaacson, the executive producer and artistic director who conceived this musical mash-up, that the show has saved her sanity and her summer. I second that.
If this summer were a mix-tape, mine would include all the magical Muny-ized showtunes, “Hamilton” (just because) and the TwinstheNewTrend (just watch). This bittersweet blend has become Operation: Summer Salvation. We didn’t know how desperately we needed this balm, like a cool breeze on an unbearably muggy day (or a Lemon Freeze under a Muny fan).
Why else would tears be streaming down my face as the sublime Kennedy Holmes beautifully sang “Children Will Listen” live under the Culver Pavilion, with Tali Allen on piano on Aug. 10, the fourth episode? Holmes, who broke out as Little Inez in 2015’s “Hairspray,” went on to become a phenom on “The Voice,” with a fourth-place finish. (She was robbed!). She remains a loyal Muny Teen and, as the soloist Monday, displayed a stunning maturity.
Under Isaacson – who loves Stephen Sondheim as much as I do – we were able to witness an extraordinary “Into the Woods” in 2015, and as I teared up at least five times during the Muny production back then, watching Tony winner Heather Headley sing “Children Will Listen” was the highlight among many. Leave it to a young woman, Kennedy, to remind us:
Children will look to you
For which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say
“Listen to me”
From a musical stressing the reality behind the
make-believe, Monday’s rendition took on a greater poignancy. And being able to
see Kennedy’s growth and blossoming as a future major star was another unforgettable
In a crazy world of scary happenings and headlines, we have been comforted by the talent of this joyful, faithful and hopeful ‘family’ of entertainers and the time-honored tradition of the Municipal Opera, now 102 years old, for four shows so far. Every superbly mixed show has elicited a rollercoaster of emotions as we take our seat, not in the 11,000 open-air theater, on a warm summer night, but instead before our televisions and computer screens, tissues at the ready.
The anticipation is matched by the exquisite renditions, whether live or on tape, but the added bonus has been seeing the work of such creative spirits – putting together all those filmed clips and using Zoom technology. And then you have the sunny optimism of those Muny Kids and Teens, and well, leaky eyes.
It feels real, even if it is make-believe. Somehow, through cyberspace, we feel connected. And we need it, apparently, for more than 140,000 people tuned in to the first three.
“Through the years, we’ll always be together, if the fates allow” — little did we know how much the lyrics of “Meet Me in St. Louis” would mean during a pandemic, “right here.” So, of course, this cast from the Centennial presentation in 2018 would be this week’s heartwarming sing-a-long reunion.
The sentimentality showed up in waves during the penultimate super-duper deluxe show, despite a heavy thunderstorm in the region that caused uprooted trees, power outages and flash flooding. Yet, here was Mike, underneath the stage, guiding us through another enchanted evening. We weren’t huddled together with our umbrellas, but nonetheless united.
And the urgency of underlying theme “Gotta Dance!” saved the day with some fresh, fantastic choreography.
The unbridled happiness of tap dancers, near and far, took us from stages to home spaces in “Tap Your Troubles Away.” Conceived and choreographed by Muny Resident and Teen Choreographer Katie Johannigman, this was a jolt of jubilation that had me grinning ear to ear, featuring alums from the past decade. And then Jack Sippel’s moving contemporary dance piece, “Speechless” featuring Muny Teens. Breath-taking! A St. Louis native, Broadway performer and Muny alum, Sippel is currently working on the Netflix version of “The Prom,” as he was the dance captain of the Broadway show.
“West Side Story” is my all-time favorite musical, and the Jerome Robbins choreography is swoon-worthy, so to be treated to the goosebumps-inducing “Dance at the Gym” from “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” in 2018 was a treat. The Muny’s 2013 production of “West Side Story” will always stand as one of the best ever, and the West Side Story suite from the Robbins’ greatest-hits compilation reminded me why the show is timeless 63 years later.
The archival footage included “Jersey Boys,” the sensational national premiere outside Broadway/national tours in 2018, and the splendid re-imagining of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” with life force Beth Malone from 2017. Plus, one of the best “Annie” shows I’ve ever seen – “NYC”! — in 2018 helmed by the one-of-a-kind John Tartaglia.
It would not be a Muny summer without the exceptional Tartaglia, and he delivered the night’s best laugh-out-loud surprise – appearing as Murray the Muny Raccoon,” the pesky scene-stealer who waddled on stage during ‘The Addams Family” and is missing his scraps and his adoring fans. The versatile performer has memorably played The Cat in the Hat in “Seussical,” the Genie in “Aladdin” and won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Supporting Actor in a Musical for playing Hysterium in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” in 2017, in addition to his directing work. He started as a puppeteer on “Sesame Street,” and went on to “Avenue Q” and playing Pinocchio in “Shrek.”
For the weekly Couple Duo, we had not one but two. Real-life couple Jason Gotay (Jack! Prince Eric! Prince Charming (well, Topher) in Cinderella!) and Muny regular Michael Hartung charmingly performed “Song on the Sand” from “La Cage aux Folles.”
Then the adorable power couple Jenny Powers and Matt Cavenaugh – who wowed us at the Sheldon a few years ago – brought baby daughter Rose with them to reprise “New Words,” a song by composer Maury Yeston. It’s not from a show, but he has composed “Titanic,” “Nine,” “Grand Hotel” among others. Waterworks.
This multi-tissue moment brought the house down, so to speak. All across the nation, we collectively burst into tears while they sang about “the moon, stars and love.”
Wait there was more! “Do-Re-Mi,” a special song-and-dance performance by those effusive Muny Kids and Teens. And those indomitable teens sang a bouncy rendition from “It Roars” from “Mean Girls.”
The Munywood Squares was another fun segment, and behind the scenes is always illuminating. We heard about the Clydesdales Ace and Deuce, and seeing the excitement of that experience from the creative anecdotes was a nice perk.
One more chance to see this show Thursday at 8:15 p.m. on Muny TV. For more information: muny.org/varietyhour/
And then Monday will be the swan song. Supersized (and with the traditional “Auld Lang Syne” too). Aug. 17, 8:15 p.m.
I’m so glad we’ve had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song…
Excuse me while I go grab another tissue.
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.