Thoroughly Modern Muny: Did Mike Isaacson's debut season in Forest Park make the grade?

Thoroughly Modern Muny: Did Mike Isaacson's debut season in Forest Park make the grade?
Larry Pry/The Muny
Pirates took to the Muny stage this summer

Even before the first musical opened in late June, the 2012 Muny season was (by Muny standards) unconventionally ambitious. Five of the seven shows were new to Forest Park; the tried-and-true was the exception rather than the rule. So how did the season fare under the new artistic management led by fledgling executive producer Mike Isaacson? Very well, indeed. The consistency of the quality rose appreciably. Four of the seven productions were top tier, on a par with the best of what has been staged at the Muny in the past decade. (Never during that time did the Muny mount four stellar productions in the same summer.)

A week-by-week assessment:

Thoroughly Modern Millie The message of this crisply professional production trumpeted loud and clear: The rebooted Muny has entered a new era. Millie is an innocuous piece of froth. It's also the most influential American musical of its generation. The staggering array of talent that passed through the original Broadway production at the turn of the 21st century is now leaving its mark on every area of American theater. An enormous amount of talent went into this debut Muny staging as well — and it showed.

Muny costume designer Andrea Lauer fits Justin Guarini for his roles as Billy Flynn in Chicago and Joseph in Joseph.
Jennifer Silverberg
Muny costume designer Andrea Lauer fits Justin Guarini for his roles as Billy Flynn in Chicago and Joseph in Joseph.

Chicago Another winner, sassy and sexy. (Sex at the Muny — imagine!) The Muny's 40-year neglect of musicals by John Kander and Fred Ebb has been shameful: in 1971, a touring Cabaret starring Joel Grey; Chicago, in 1977, at the end of its Broadway run. This long overdue Chicago slithered and sizzled on the Muny stage like a cobra freed from its basket.

Aladdin The Muny has a long tradition of staging one children's show each summer, but the appeal of these recent Disney musicals (The Little Mermaid last summer, now Aladdin) remains elusive. Now that Disney has a chokehold on children's entertainment, I suppose there's no avoiding these productions. Aladdin needed more than a genie to disguise its thin material.

Dreamgirls The most-anticipated production of the summer turned out to be the only major disappointment. In asking Jennifer Holliday to repeat her Tony Award-winning Broadway performance from 31 years ago, what initially must have seemed like an inspired idea resulted in a gamble that didn't pay off. Holliday was treated royally. She received inflated billing and a featured playbill biography, then gave little in return. Without a star performance at its center, the production felt disjointed and sterile. Also (and you can't blame this on Holliday) Dreamgirls was the season's only show where the production design felt small.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat The best thing you can say about this Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice curiosity is that the Muny staging was painless — which is saying a lot, because usually a date with Joseph is about as much fun as an appointment with the dentist. Thanks to scores of fresh young faces in the spirited cast, we got through it.

Pirates (or, Gilbert & Sullivan, Plunder'd) The season returned to the early promise of weeks one and two with this updated romp of The Pirates of Penzance. The show is still a work in progress. But after a slow start, it was a blast once the irreverent tone kicked in. By evening's end the vast amphitheater was shot through with more confetti than St. Louis has seen since Charles Lindbergh was feted in 1927.

The King and I The summer ended as strongly as it began. A lush staging of this venerable 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic clearly stated that the Muny has not forgotten its roots. This was the Muny's twelfth King and I, yet thanks to the engaging performances by its two title role players, the evening felt fresh. Happily, there's still an embracing place for mature musicals in Forest Park.

A simplistic report card for Isaacson's first season would include four A's, two B's and one Incomplete. Riding the crest of its newfound sinew, the Muny promises to announce the 2013 season by October. Bring it on.

Click here to read "Muny Magic," Dennis Brown's recent profile of executive producer Mike Isaacson.
 
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4 comments
egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

Paul Blake is not the issue. He was told what shows he could do, and how few. I was no fan because  he showed no courage, he took the money. his Aida was as good as anythig Mike did, and without the tackey big screen. The issue is the criminal restrait of trade of the greatest outdoo theater in the Country to protect 'pretenders'. This Saturday, the thugs are going to auction off much of its history, which they do not own. The people own t.. Auctions are sometimes done before you close a place.

When Schoemehl was Mayor they had one or more 'clear stuff out of the opera house" evets: before he closed it for more than 2 decades. For St. Lous to be a city again, the needed quatity is 800,000 MUNY attendance and 550,000 year round in Kiel Opera House. Dont p;lay the quality or

'generational' game with me, you will lose. Open booking, something for all, blows that out of the water.

OverIt
OverIt

EGolterman, may I suggest that you find out where Paul Blake is now so you can move there and watch him lower the quality of another American theatrical Institution. What Mr Isaacson has done for The Muny in one season is miraculous. He took a Theater that in the past two decades has become the butt of jokes and has lifted it to a level of professionalism that hasn't been seen in Forest Park since Paul Blake's unfortunate arrival. Instead of seeing New York Actors who can't get hired there anymore or witnessing embarrassing hammy performances from some of our own local Hacks, the Muny audience got to see first rate performances from Actors who are still bankable in NYC. I applaud Isaacson and Reagan for taking risks this summer and proclaiming loud and strong that The Muny is moving swiftly into the next generation. As for your claims of violating antitrust laws by doing MILLIE, let me simply say that it sounds as though you have an ax to grind. Sounds as though you should stick with the tackiness of STAGES ST LOUIS and leave the real Musical Theatre to The Muny. And finally, who cares if this was the shortest Muny season on record? It's quality, not quantity....and the quality was amped up this season tenfold.

egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

RFT used to do some pretty good investigative. Give us a comparison. Show us

6 outdoor theaters still open, how many run well into September and how many into October.

Start with Verizon and Starlight in Kansas City and WolfTrap across the Potomac from D.C.

So, find just 2.

egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

For the shortest MUNY season in our lifetimes-44 nights-keeping it closed 3 holiday weekends, cutting checks for Mary Strauss, himself & other investors in Millie; Mike and Denny  Reagan and the owners of the Fox are to be indicted for restraint-of-trade of the St. Louis Municipal Theater in Forest Park. In violation of federal anti trust laws. They should go work for Mary on grand avenue. The U.S. Attorney should put MUNY under protection, cancel the restrictive leases forced on the City by the 'boys' last decade,  and urge the City to operate it 100 nights or more next year. Why are there federal laws against killing or choking 'competition'?  Because in this case it costs the Region $200 million  a year in entertainment and travel for  entertainment revenue. Every year. St. Louis is reduced, & made vulnerable to what it is suffering now, because of such nefarious activity. Other cities bank the $$$$.

 
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