Muny Musings

The summer season in Forest Park had some highs, but let's keep them in perspective

The just-concluded 85th summer season at the Muny in Forest Park was fraught with incidental pleasures. The seven-week repertory boasted two productions (Crazy for You, Cinderella) that exploited the capacious venue to grand effect. While two out of seven doesn't sound like an astronomical ratio, when compared to some of the programming of the previous two summers, this season felt like a veritable triumph.

Yet where the venerable Muny is concerned, accolades need to be kept in historical perspective. In terms of citywide excitement, there was nothing on the order of 1958, when Bob Hope performed in Jerome Kern's Roberta to more than 12,000 people a night. But then, the current executive producer has made it clear that he does not want internationally renowned entertainers to appear on the Muny stage.

Nor was there the keen anticipation that electrified the area in 1968 when Hello, Dolly! shut down for a week on Broadway and the entire Pearl Bailey-led company took up residence in Forest Park. The Dolly! engagement was such a boost to civic pride that in ensuing years other Broadway musicals were brought to St. Louis. Alas, similar event programming is unlikely to reoccur, because nowadays the Muny is reluctant to book anything that might impinge on potential Fox Theatre offerings. A curious concern, when we're being told there's more than enough product available to keep both the Fox and Kiel Opera House active.

Mike Gorman

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But Kiel is in the distant future, and Hope and Pearlie Mae are in the distant past. Right now, Muny patrons can savor the still-buoyant memories of four standout performances: Michel Bell, whose mellifluous rendition of "Ol' Man River" in Show Boat brought audiences cheering to their feet; Noah Racey and Paige Price, who sang, danced and clowned their way through the breezy Crazy for You; and Lauren Kennedy, who was a luminous Nellie Forbush in South Pacific.

Bell and Kennedy, who had honed their performances in previous productions (he on Broadway, she in London), are emblematic of the inconsistency that undermines too much of the current Muny casting. They both brought depth and resonance to their roles, but their co-stars did not. In South Pacific, the actor who played Emile de Becque had the phoniest French accent this side of Inspector Clouseau. And Bell found himself adrift on a Show Boat in which all four principal roles -- the entire Hawks family (Cap'n Andy, Parthy, Magnolia) and ne'er-do-well Gaylord Ravenal -- were ill-cast.

Casting seven musicals back-to-back is a big task, but it's executive producer Paul Blake's main task. And it was a much more arduous task in the pre-Blake years when the Muny used to produce ten and eleven shows each season. As summer theaters around the country shutter, the Muny has become a plum job for actors. There's no excuse for some of the lame performances to which St. Louisans were subjected. (The harridan who screeched her way through Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof and the sputtering father in Crazy for You both should have been hung by their thumbs and flogged with their own Equity cards.)

Too often, Muny staffers deride the theater as a mere "summer stock" operation; almost with a sense of inferiority, they contend that audiences shouldn't expect all that much from a ten-day rehearsal schedule. If that's true, then how did the Muny manage to mount so many memorable shows back when they operated on a seven-day schedule? Talented actors will tell you that time is not the issue; adrenaline alone will compensate for a shorter rehearsal schedule.

The operative word here is "talent." Blake should be encouraged to quit throwing contracts to his pals and to instead seek out the best possible performer for each and every role. St. Louis audiences deserve no less.

But before you can cast the shows, you need to choose them. One has to wonder about a selection process that for too long now has resulted in such an onslaught of safe, sanitary titles. Again, a little perspective is in order.

The Municipal Opera, as we know it today, was rooted in a 1917 outdoor production of Verdi's Aida. Two years later, when the Municipal Theatre Association was formed, an immediate decision had to be made: Would the fledgling theater produce pure opera or more mainstream operetta? That critical determination was left not to the staff, but rather to the people of St. Louis. A ballot with 29 titles was printed in the local newspapers. The top six vote-getters proved to be an eclectic blend of grand opera, light opera and operetta. Something for everyone.

As the years passed, the artistic reins were turned over to theater-savvy professionals who chose the repertoires. For decade upon decade, the seasons kept pace with changing theater trends. As Verdi gave way to Victor Herbert, so in time did Herbert give way to Rodgers and Hammerstein. But always there was a balance of old and new. In recent years, however, the repertory seems to be on a loop, with the same tried-and-true shows being repeated every four or five years. This past summer, five of the seven offerings were previously staged in 1995, '97 or '98. Don't be stunned if the 2004 season includes 42nd Street, Oklahoma!, Annie and Grease, which were last produced in 1996, '98 and '99.

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