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Thursday, July 2, 2009

By the Boards: Dennis Brown on the STL Theater Scene July 2-8

Posted By on Thu, Jul 2, 2009 at 7:02 AM


After two solid offerings in 42nd Street and Annie, the Muny returns on Monday from its self-imposed Fourth of July hiatus with a one-week run of Meet Me In St. Louis.

Based on the 1944 movie that starred Judy Garland (which in turn was based on a series of short stories by Sally Benson), the stage adaptation is an odd duck. When it debuted at the Muny in 1960, the sheer excitement of a world premiere "right here in St. Louis" blinded a lot of viewers to the fact that the intimate nature of the story is not ideally suited to the vast Muny stage.

But even before seeing this week's staging, I'm willing to bet that it will be an improvement over the Muny's last production in 2004 -- for the simple reason that it would be almost impossible to be worse.

One thing that this week's production should have going for it is casting. This summer the Muny is hosting lots of really gifted actors. We've already seen Robert Cuccioli, Dee Hoty, Beth Leavel and John Schuck. This week's cast includes bright young talents like Brynn O'Malley as Esther Smith and Max von Essen as the boy next door. O'Malley and von Essen work constantly in New York and on the road, but because the nature of the Broadway theater has changed, they haven't yet enjoyed that big star-making hit. Their loss is our gain, because they're free to come to St. Louis. And Blake is smart to grab them.

Then there's Lewis J. Stadlen as Grandpa. Stadlen made his bravura Muny debut two summers as Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! Last summer he opened the season as Max Bialystock in The Producers (for which he won a Kevin Kline Award) and closed it as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

click to enlarge BEARMANOR MEDIA
  • BearManor Media

Not only is Stadlen a marvelous stage actor, but he's also become a first-time author. His memoir, Acting Foolish (BearManor Media, $21.95), which recounts his career to date, is filled with hilarious self-deprecating humor and insightful observations. The book is almost shockingly candid, which means that we are treated to blunt glimpses of the likes of Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Richard Dreyfuss and Shelley Winters that play against the sugar-coated puffery behind which celebrities hide. On the other hand, it's reassuring to read that icons like Henry Fonda and Zero Mostel are worthy of their reputations.

Publishers don't release many good theater books any more; I fear they think there's not a large enough audience for them. So books like this one are few and far between. Which is all the more reason not to let this one slip past. And here's another bet you don't want to take -- that there are more surefire laughs in Acting Foolish than in Meet Me in St. Louis.

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