From action and adventure to romance and comedy, there is something for everyone in the 2012 summer season of shows at The Muny in Forest Park.
Mike Isaacson, The Muny’s executive producer, said the cast and crew relish The Muny experience.
“We’re very fortunate,” said Isaacson, who took over at the end of last season for longtime Muny executive producer Paul Blake. “It’s fun for a couple of reasons. Everybody here loves what they do, and loves being able to support these people. That generosity of spirit just sort of flows through everything we do, which is really great. The real key of that, though, is the audience. Our Muny audience comes in and they’re so happy to be here and so excited about what they’re going to see.”
Performers, all professionals who have been making their livings as actors, frequently compare The Muny to a fun, intense summer camp. Part of that is the camaraderie they feel bringing a high quality show to fruition in a very short time period. But part of that is how appreciative and theater savvy the audience is.
“It’s a very supportive and warm audience,” Isaacson said. “The theater business at the level these (cast members) are working at can be a very tough and cynical business – hard. When they come here and they’re part of our shows, it allows them to get in touch with something that reminds them why they did this in the first place, why they struggled to be a performer.”
Thoroughly Modern Millie
That certainly holds true this summer, starting with Thoroughly Modern Millie, which opens Monday. Millie, which runs through June 24, is the story of a small town girl who arrives in 1920s New York City to find it is thoroughly modern, with flappers and even a Model T spicing the production.
“It was a show created by people who wanted to create the kind of show that made them fall in love with musicals,” Isaacson said. “Not just ‘like’ musicals, but ‘love’ musicals. So it’s got a heart as big as our stage. And it’s a big musical. It’s got big numbers, and big characters and big dances – and we’re doing it big. We’re going to have 30 people (just) in our opening number, and we’re going to have them surrounded by a cast of extras. So when Millie arrives in Manhattan, we’re gonna give you Manhattan. Sort of that impact.”
The show stars Broadway veteran Tari Kelly as Millie Dillmount, Tony Award-winning actress Beth Leavel as Mrs. Meers and Tony and Emmy Award-winning performer Leslie Uggams reprising her Broadway role as Muzzy.
“I can’t tell you how excited we are that Leslie Uggams is here,” he said. “She was last here in 1977 in Guys and Dolls. She’s a true legend and generous spirit, and still an incredible performer. It’s so inspiring to everyone here to have her here. I’ve just seen the cast in the rehearsal hall, and they’re sensational. I think it’s going to be a real treat. I think it’s going to be a real love fest. I want people to see the show and, if we succeed, it will remind them why they love musicals and why they love The Muny.”
The next show in the lineup is Chicago, the story of murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, which runs June 25-July 1. Chicago is interesting, Isaacson said, in that it initially ran on the stage in 1975, then as a revival around 1997, and then the film came out in 2002.
“So you have these three different contexts for how Chicago has been portrayed,” he said. “Our director-choreographer Denis Jones, who is a huge rising talent in American theater, and I spent a lot of time talking about what would The Muny audience production be? So it’s very exciting. The whole thing is going to be a speakeasy on the stage, our Muny orchestra is on stage, and we’re actually building out over the pit. We’re going to take the dance into the audience – we’re going to extend out.”
With its adult theme, Chicago sparked some conjecture on The Muny’s Facebook page about how many children would attend. The Muny’s Web site now has a “show guidelines” section that outlines potentially risqué language and situations that are a part of the shows.
“It gives you really wonderful, detailed information,” Isaacson said. “So it lets everybody make the choice on their own standard.”
The show guidelines for Chicago, for instance, describe sexual references, mature themes, use of drugs or alcohol and spell out the instances of language some parents would not want their children to hear. It is intended to allow parents, plus others who might be offended by certain themes or language, to make educated choices about attending, Isaacson said.
Aladdin, the third show of the season, runs July 5-13 and is appropriate for all ages.
“Aladdin is going to be a really wonderful family extravaganza,” Isaacson said. “We’re going to open the show with three live camels – how’s that for hot? What’s great is that this adaptation for the stage is really fun. It’s like a raucous vaudeville. Aladdin’s buddies, the guys who ride the camels, tell the audience the story. It’s got this delicious sort of ease to it. You know how the movie kind of had that anarchy to it, with the Robin Williams character and all that? The whole show has that sort of loose feeling to it.”
Tony nominees Robin de Jesus and Tartaglia star as Aladdin and the Genie, respectively. As Aladdin, two-time Tony nominee de Jesus “is great,” Isaacson said. Tartaglia was a puppeteer on Sesame Street and was in Avenue Q on Broadway and had a show called Johnny and the Sprites on the Disney Channel.
“He’s crazy wonderful,” Isaacson said. “He’s hilarious.”
Dreamgirls, which plays July 16-22, is the story of the Dreams, an all-girl singing trio from Chicago. It is based on 1960s acts like the Supremes and James Brown, and portrays the challenges and heartbreak of being ground-breakers musically and socially.
“The big news there is Jennifer Holliday is coming to recreate her Tony Award-winning performance as Effie,” Isaacson said. “When she opened in Dreamgirls on Broadway and sang ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,’ that was akin to Ethel Merman singing ‘I’ve Got Rhythm.’ Something in the Broadway musical changed at that moment, and she opened a door to performers and writers and artists. I’m so honored that she would do this for us, and Dreamgirls is a great, great, great musical. We’re going to have the original Michael Bennett choreography, which is sensational, and it’s just going to be fantastic.”
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Next up is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat July 23-29.
“This is shaping up to be the season’s surprise, because everyone thinks they’ve seen Joseph. But not the way we’re gonna do it,” Isaacson said.
Muny favorite Lara Teeter, the head of the musical theater department at , is the director-choreographer.
“He has all these incredible surprises planned,” he said.
Justin Guarini, the season one runner-up on American Idol, will play Joseph.
“Justin’s been building a career in the theater quite successfully, and he’s just going to be wonderful,” Isaacson said.
Pirates! (Or Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d)
“Pirates! (Or Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d), a comedic update of The Pirates of Penzance, takes the stage July 30-August 5.
“Pirates is another one,” he said, “where the audience is going to go, ‘What is this?’”
Pirates incorporates the light-hearted fun of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
“There’s a Caribbean island, and a curse, and there are some wonderful new scenes and lyrics,” Isaacson said. “It is just fall on the ground funny.”
The King and I
The season concludes August 6-12 with The King and I, that timeless Rodgers and Hammerstein classic East-meets-West treasure.
“It’s so nice to end with one of the all-time greats,” he said. “Rodgers and Hammerstein gave us so many gifts, and The King and I, Oklahoma and The Sound of Music are really their big three. The ones that are standing the test of time and audiences love.”
The same can be said for The Muny.
“What we’re all really working hard to do with this season, and what I’m trying to show the audience, is just how much – by putting on great shows – we care about them,” Isaacson said.
The Muny “was created so a community could come together,” he said. “That’s why it literally physically exists. So there’s a great joy and obligation in that. We want everyone to see how much we respect and honor that.”
The Muny shows start at 8:15 p.m. daily. Tickets range from $10 to $70, with 1,500 free seats at the back of the theater available starting at 7 p.m. on a first-come, first-serve basis. The Muny offers pre-show entertainment in the picnic area on the east side of the venue.