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The Muny improved this year -- but 2004 wasn't a hard act to follow

The 2005 Muny season, which concluded last week, was a notable improvement over what St. Louis theatergoers have been seeing in Forest Park. Six of the seven stagings ranged from good to very good indeed; two even provided memorable theater moments (Beauty and the Beast and Singin' in the Rain). Only one show, Annie Get Your Gun, was an out-and-out dud. By contrast, 2004 scored only two satisfying productions against five disappointments.

Muny executive director Paul Blake can be proud of the improved quality, but he shouldn't waste too much time congratulating himself. It's when a theater is riding high that it needs to be most vigilant about building on strengths and correcting flaws. Here are four areas that merit further attention:

Casting: Blake did a terrific job of importing more top talent this summer than Muny audiences have seen in years. Newcomers like Kate Baldwin, Jeffry Denman, Dee Hoty and Brian d'Arcy James, among others, meshed well with familiar faces like Lee Roy Reams, Ken Page, Jeff McCarthy and Leslie Denniston. McCarthy (Mame) and Denniston (The Sound of Music) both came to St. Louis directly from the ecstatically lauded Barrington (Massachusetts) Stage Company revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies; it was good to know we were seeing the summer's most-talked-about talent, way out here in the hinterlands.

But Blake doled out too many second-tier parts to his pals, talent be damned. The season opener, Beauty and the Beast, which was well cast from top to bottom, set a high bar that was only equaled by Jesus Christ Superstar. (But then, the actors don't do much talking in JCS. ) Annie Get Your Gun, Singin' in the Rain and The Sound of Music all suffered from feature-role performances that ranged from weak to hopeless.

Lights, Costumes, Sets: Professional actors deserve to be seen in professional productions. In fact, they deserve to be seen, period. If the actors can learn their lines by opening night, why can't the spotlight operators learn their cues? Just once on opening night it would be a welcome change to see the star performers in light when they begin to sing.

Then again, some of this year's wardrobe selections were so weird, the actors might not have wanted to be seen. In Mame, the flamboyant title character traditionally makes her entrance in gold satin. Whose idea was it to have Dee Hoty enter in black, as if she were just home from a funeral? And in The Sound of Music, why did the buoyant Maria return from her happy honeymoon in a severe gray suit worthy of Joan Crawford? As for Annie Get Your Gun, more temperamental actors than Liz Larsen and Brian d'Arcy James might simply have refused to go onstage in the grotesque garb they were required to wear.

Then there's the scenery. The Muny used to build the most impressive sets of any outdoor theater in America; now those sets are unimaginatively designed and poorly painted. (In Mame the painted flowers at the Burnside plantation were beyond pathetic.) In the past a single designer was responsible for a ten-musical season, and the output was impressive. Now two designers can't get a seven-show season right. What's the problem?

Direction: Blake gets high marks for hiring five outstanding guest directors. Despite limited rehearsal time, all five mounted solid offerings. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the only two shows in which the director's hand was nonexistent (Annie Get Your Gun, Mame) were the two Blake himself directed. At least in Mame choreographer Diana Baffa-Brill imposed a sense of élan on the evening. But in Annie Get Your Gun, and again in Mame's book scenes, Blake's direction was so slack that there was almost a sense he was torpedoing the shows on purpose, to ensure that they won't be done again at the Muny. Last summer he reduced Meet Me in St. Louis to torpor and then made the mistake of staging his own vanity effort, Breakfast at Tiffany's, when a real director at least might have brought an objective eye to the material. But amid last year's other lackluster efforts, Blake's failures at least had company. This year offered far less camouflage. For the good of actors and audiences alike, Blake should quit directing at the Muny and focus on producing.

The Repertory: Although the seven-show season once again was predictably safe, it's worth noting that for the first time since 1996 the seven-musical repertoire comprised seven genuine musicals, written by bona fide composers and lyricists. There were no embarrassing revues like the recent Hooray for Hollywood, no so-called premieres like Breakfast at Tiffany's and Roman Holiday. And though the Muny equation for play selection sometimes seems to be more mathematical than creative -- a popular joke in the local theater community: "Have you seen this week's Muny show?" "No, I saw it five years ago" -- to the theater's credit, only three of this year's seven shows were retreads from 2000.

So what can we expect next summer? The annual children's show likely will be The Wizard of Oz, last seen five years ago. The "gotta dance" slot, filled this year by Singin' in the Rain, will surely go to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, last staged in 2000. There's often a Rodgers and Hammerstein slot. Carousel has not been seen in Forest Park since 1988. That could reappear; if not, perhaps The King and I or Oklahoma!

In addition to the children's show, of late the Muny has added a show geared to younger audiences -- the Andrew Lloyd Webber slot. The rotation includes Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and, as a break from Webber, the ever-enthralling Godspell. Evita hasn't been seen for five years, so that's a possibility. But don't be surprised if Elton John's Aida elbows its way into Webber Week. Or perhaps that spot will go to Grease. Or perhaps we'll get all three.

At least Aida would be fresh. One reason Beauty and the Beast worked so well this summer is that it was new to Forest Park. Everyone from the scenic designer to the cast to the musicians seemed to be invigorated by working on something they hadn't already done a half-dozen times. Muny subscribers deserve a minimum of one new show each summer. Aida would fill that category -- though not nearly so well as Titanic or Ragtime, which offer meatier evenings of theater.

Here's a seditious suggestion for a new Muny category: Already there are slots aimed at children and teens. How about one musical per summer geared to adults? The rapt attention paid earlier this month to West Side Story eloquently confirmed that Muny audiences crave more than an exclusive diet of cotton candy. In addition to the fact that neither has been seen before in Forest Park, Titanic and Ragtime would remind viewers that the most ambitious musicals can still entertain even as they strive for something beyond escapism.

If Blake really wants to test his producing mettle, why not mount Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street? We can already hear the cries of dismay, but who's crying? Not the Muny audiences. Sweeney Todd wasn't even listed on this year's annual survey of shows they most want to see, so subscribers don't even get to weigh in on the subject. Who has determined that Muny audiences need to be saved from an American classic? If it's simply an economic consideration, does anyone seriously think Sweeney Todd would be weaker at the box office than Annie Get Your Gun or Mame?

Of course this won't happen, but it's fun to dream. After all, who would have believed last August that this summer's Muny season would be so improved?

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