Doubtless, 90 Years of Muny Magic, this week's birthday celebration of St. Louis' longest-lasting — and, in recent decades, longest-suffering — theater, is the best show Muny executive producer Paul Blake is capable of cobbling together. If there are no embarrassing lows among the 28 musical numbers (well, there are a couple, but I won't single them out), there aren't any Himalayan highs either. (Well, there are a couple, which I will single out: Michel Bell's stirring rendition of "Ol' Man River" elicits fond memories of his performance as Joe in Show Boat five summers ago, and Elena Zahlman beautifully dances the role of Louise in a ballet from Carousel.)
But with so few pronounced peaks and valleys, sitting through 90 Years of Muny Magic is like sucking on a Sno-Cone without any syrup for two hours and forty minutes. After a while you begin to realize you're missing the flavor.
A tremendous amount of talent is assembled onstage, but you wouldn't know it, because for the most part the thirteen guest stars are treated shamefully. After a perfunctory introduction at the outset, most of these principals become as anonymous and expendable as entertainers in a cruise-ship extravaganza. Some, like Kim Crosby and Betsy Wolfe, are wasted because they receive so little stage time. Others are wasted despite lots of stage time. (If Graham Rowat learns nothing more from his Muny debut, he should learn to never again wear a coonskin cap while crooning tunes from The Desert Song.)
After the opening number (a spoof of a tune from A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, which — wouldn't you just know it — never has been seen at the Muny), the structure settles into a mostly chronological review of show music. Many of these familiar songs are quite pleasant. (Kudos to the Trojan orchestra that, under the constant baton of Michael Horsley, plays the music of the night almost nonstop.) But other than the fact that these extracts hail from shows that have been staged in Forest Park through the decades, little of what we hear here is germane to the Muny story. Despite this decade-by-decade format, there's no sense of history here. We aren't even told that Robin Hood in 1919 was the first musical. (God forbid we might hear a note of music from it.)
History is personality. If you're going to perform "You're the Top" from Anything Goes, Cole Porter's lyrics are quite sufficient. Instead of wasting our time with newly written lyrics about the Gateway Arch, Blake should have brought Pat St. James — the young understudy who galvanized the entire city when she had to take over for the injured Ann Miller — back to town to sing that number as she did in 1972. Of course, then Blake would be acknowledging that the Muny actually had a colorful history before he arrived eighteen long years ago, something he is loath to do. As author of this script, he has the gall to insert his own name four times without ever once mentioning W.C. Fields, Cary Grant, Bob Hope or any of many luminaries who made much greater contributions to 90 years of Muny magic than he ever has.
This revue is not only impersonal, some of it is insulting. In the specially written lyrics for the opening song, we're told we should "go to the Muny" to see "a barber named Sweeney." This, at a venue that wouldn't dream of staging Sweeney Todd. Midway through Act Two, Ken Page made a fleeting ad-lib about the free seats. Good for him. The free seats are integral to what makes the Muny unique; as a St. Louisan, Page knows that. But for a while it looked as if the entire evening would go by without so much as acknowledging their existence.
We all have our Muny memories. In an accompanying sidebar, I've listed some of mine, only one of which made the cut for this revue. That's OK; no way could a single evening be all things to all people. But in choosing to stress music over personality and story, this flat-line litany is about as exciting as an extended episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. If you're a Welk fan, you're sure to have a wunnerful, wunnerful time at 90 Years of Muny Magic.