By Lynn Venhaus
Every summer, we talk about Muny Magic. When a serendipitous moment happens on that gigantic stage under the stars in front of thousands, it’s magnificent – whether it’s a dazzling spectacle of skill and precision, or an emotional rendition that resonates all the way to the free seats.
Get ready to be wowed by the sensational “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” the exact grand-scale vehicle to showcase what the landmark Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis in Forest Park does best. It’s a breathtaking way to open this historical centennial season.
A masterpiece of motion, the 1989 Tony-winning anthology celebrates musical milestones created from 1944 to 1964 by the incomparable visionary choreographer and director Jerome Robbins.
Many of us at Monday’s premiere were largely unfamiliar with this work – the Muny is the first venue outside of Broadway and the first national tour to stage it. That’s how massive and daunting this material is.
Hence, that newness was exciting. The audience was already in a celebratory mood given the significance of our nation’s oldest and largest outdoor theater’s special benchmark. As each number unfolded, it often evoked fond memories.
Muny-goers smiled, and in some instances, cheered in recognition, remembering the first time they saw Peter Pan fly, those elated World War II sailors on leave, the Anatevkans introduce their traditions, the Jets and Sharks snap their fingers and Siamese royals present a play within a play.
From peppy to poignant, inspired song-and-dance numbers from “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The King and I” and “On the Town” displayed Robbins’ artistry and forward-thinking genius. You need proof? The Bottle Dance and Mambo! – The Dance at the Gym!
And just for fun, old-timey hijinks from “High Button Shoes” and “Billion Dollar Baby” represented the early years. The “Charleston” from the Speakeasy-era “Billion Dollar Baby” was a vivacious blast from the past and “On a Sunday By the Sea” was a funny and frantic silent-movie-type crime caper.
Sarah Marie Jenkins as the irrepressible Peter Pan, with Elizabeth Teeter, Gabriel Cytron and Cole Joyce as Wendy, Michael and John, made me feel like a giddy kid again as they smoothly performed the aerial acrobatics in “I’m Flying.”
The evening’s emcee, known as ‘The Setter,” is Muny fan favorite Rob McClure, recently of Broadway’s “Something Rotten!” who vigorously showed off his multi-talents. His wife, Maggie Lakis, joined him in a duet, “I Still Get Jealous,” and he adroitly slipped into Tevye.
His partner in the Muny’s delightful “The Addams Family” as well as ‘Mary Poppins,” Jenny Powers was smoldering in the “Mr. Monotony” number from “Call Me Madam” delivering a swanky, jazzy sultriness, as did Sean Rozanski, Alexa De Barr and Garen Scribner in the love-triangle dance.
While the show is largely one dance montage, the few robustly delivered songs help advance the beloved stories – “Sunrise, Sunset” at Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding, the adrenaline-fired-up Jets at Doc’s in “Cool,” the fiery Puerto Ricans in “America,” and those sociable NYC girls in “Ya Got Me.” “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is always a crowd-pleaser.
Because of the out-of-context nature of the show, if you’ve never seen one of the shows, or know the story, some may find that a drawback.
Nevertheless, there is no denying the power of meticulously recreated iconic scenes that have moved and uplifted generations.
The mesmerizing “Suite of Dances” from my personal favorite, “West Side Story,” was a heartfelt ending to Act I, with the tear-jerking “Somewhere” tenderly conveying a message more relevant today than ever. That brilliant combination of Leonard Bernstein’s music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Robbins’ blend of ballet, jazz and modern dance is a potent reminder of a show’s emotional heft.
Unfortunately, a sound glitch couldn’t have happened at a more pin-drop moment – the aftermath of “The Rumble,” but the performers didn’t miss a melodramatic beat.
This sprawling cast of 50 – expertly cast by Megan Larche Dominick – seamlessly delivered what basically amounted to nine mini-musicals, complete with changing sets and costumes.
The Muny’s crackerjack team of director Cynthia Onrubia, production supervisor Chris Bailey (responsible for last year’s brilliant “Newsies”) and music director Michael Horsley elevated Robbins’ original direction and choreography into a master class.
Additional choreography was provided by Harrison Beal, who was in the original and national tour of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” and Muny veterans Dan Knechtges and Ralph Perkins. Such grace and eloquence on display.
A dancer’s job is to make it look easy, and this sensational large ensemble was flawless in execution, belying the effort it took to make every dance number poetry in motion.
The degree of difficulty for every element was enormous, and the design team must receive special mention. Paige Hathaway’s scenic designs, from the Darlings’ spacious bedroom to a seashore boardwalk and cabanas, plopped us into those worlds, quickly establishing moods, time and location.
Video designer Nathan W. Scheuer superbly enhanced the settings, notably providing a Naval ship and NYC tourist attractions for “On the Town,” the night sky in “Peter Pan” and the tenements of “West Side Story.”
The production’s unsung hero must be costume designer Robin L. McGee and her astounding team, which created a colorful amalgam of periods and cultures, from ‘50s street gang garb to ‘20s bathing attire, varsity racoon coats, and exotic bejeweled Siamese costumes.
Just think, for “Fiddler on the Roof,” they fashioned Russian peasants in every day wear, wedding finery and sleep outfits, and that was just for one of the nine highlighted musicals.
This deftly-constructed history lesson displayed why Robbins is one of the innovative all-time greats who helped shape the American musical to be our glorious gift to the world.
And our cherished Muny continues its proud tradition with this extraordinary show – an awe-inspiring achievement in scope, talent and collaboration.
Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson bounded onstage for his customary introduction with even more energy, firing up our enthusiasm and reminded us just what a treasure we have, right here where we live, right here in St. Louis. He noted the foresight of our city leaders as well as the community’s commitment to the present and future.
Underline that “Alone in its greatness” tagline once associated with the Muny, make it in all capital letters and give it an exclamation point for further emphasis. Here’s to another 100!
(Note: I begin my 10th year reviewing the Muny with this show. I have been coming here since my grandmother brought me on her organization’s bus trip in 1965 for “Flower Drum Song.” Many warm summer nights later, I still look forward to walking past the World’s Fair gazebo and sitting underneath the stars to see these one-of-a-kind shows.)
“Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” runs from June 11 to 17 nightly at 8:15 p.m. at The Muny in Forest Park. For more information, visit www.muny.org.