You had to smile at the irony. After enduring several summers of withering heat, this year the proactive Muny installed a revolutionary outdoor air-circulation system to cool the amphitheater (which it does, quite effectively) — only to spend the summer basking in Seattle-like temperatures. Instead of being beset by muggy heat, actors and audiences found themselves dodging rainstorms. Although only one performance (the final night of season opener Spamalot) was rained out, several were interrupted by rain delays.
One day after the 2013 season ended, the Muny released a comprehensive press release filled with encouraging statistics. In terms of sheer numbers, this summer's total attendance (383,485) was the highest in six years, which would suggest that in its sophomore year the Mike Isaacson-Denny Reagan administration has succeeded in reversing the eroding viewer base.
It's no surprise that the two all-out family shows attracted the largest crowds. Mary Poppins averaged 8,858 viewers for each of its nine nights. (Last summer's most-attended musical, Aladdin, averaged 8,317.) The cartoonish Shrek averaged 8,134. Yet, as a confirmation that St. Louis audiences still respond to venerable musicals done well, West Side Story (7,790) was the third-most-attended show, and the crisply staged Les Misérables finished in a virtual tie, with a 7,770 average. The summer's oldest musical, South Pacific, averaged 7,130 viewers a night, edging out the more recent Spamalot by 20 attendees per performance. With a nightly attendance of 6,476, Nunsense Muny Style! brought up the rear.
So those are the statistics, but what of the quality? Season opener Spamalot was great fun, foolishness drolly done. Shrek, the second show, was a big disappointment. Since Isaacson took over the artistic reins last summer, the productions have benefited from snappy scenic design, and Shrek felt like a step backward. Nor was the season enhanced by its third offering, the negligible Nunsense!
Then came South Pacific. As audiences entered the amphitheater, they encountered a stunning rendering of the distant island Bali Ha'i hanging from the scenery booms. This painting made a startling visual statement. It was as if a Muny lifeguard was blowing his whistle and saying, "All right, children, everyone out of the pool. The adults have arrived." Apart from a few casting wrinkles in lesser roles, South Pacific was a memorable and mostly magnificent staging of an American classic.
Thirty-five minutes into the Sunday-night performance, as Bloody Mary was singing "Bali Ha'i," the rains came. The vast audience sought cover under the covered side walkways. Strangers struck up conversations, others amused themselves with handheld devices, but few people left. Even 90-year-old Red Schoendienst stuck it out. To watch this throng of more than 7,000 people patiently wait out the elements was to be reminded that Munygoers are perhaps the most appreciative theater audiences anywhere. They know the risks, but they also know the rewards. So what if there's a little rain? Where else would they rather be?
The rain ceased after twenty-five minutes; the next twenty were spent mopping the stage. Laura Michele Kelly, who starred as Nellie Forbush, was out there with the crew, ensuring that the area where she'd soon be dancing was properly dry. (Shades of Rudolf Nureyev in 1967, when he appeared, mop in hand, to help dry the stage prior to a Royal Ballet performance of Romeo and Juliet.) At 9:35 p.m. the musical resumed. One second after the curtain call ended, the rain returned — and the re-drenched audience could only laugh.
The night after South Pacific finally ended, a peerlessly executed production of Les Misérables opened on that same stage. Summer stock used to be all about one show closing and another opening the next night. But not at this scale and rarely at this level of expertise. To see South Pacific and Les Miz on consecutive nights, both brilliantly executed, was an incomparable experience that had nothing to do with statistics. The rebuilding process continues — and at an astonishingly rapid pace.