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Thoroughly Modern Muny: Did Mike Isaacson's debut season in Forest Park make the grade?



Even before the first musical opened in late June, the 2012 Muny season was (by Muny standards) unconventionally ambitious. Five of the seven shows were new to Forest Park; the tried-and-true was the exception rather than the rule. So how did the season fare under the new artistic management led by fledgling executive producer Mike Isaacson? Very well, indeed. The consistency of the quality rose appreciably. Four of the seven productions were top tier, on a par with the best of what has been staged at the Muny in the past decade. (Never during that time did the Muny mount four stellar productions in the same summer.)

A week-by-week assessment:

Thoroughly Modern Millie The message of this crisply professional production trumpeted loud and clear: The rebooted Muny has entered a new era. Millie is an innocuous piece of froth. It's also the most influential American musical of its generation. The staggering array of talent that passed through the original Broadway production at the turn of the 21st century is now leaving its mark on every area of American theater. An enormous amount of talent went into this debut Muny staging as well — and it showed.

Chicago Another winner, sassy and sexy. (Sex at the Muny — imagine!) The Muny's 40-year neglect of musicals by John Kander and Fred Ebb has been shameful: in 1971, a touring Cabaret starring Joel Grey; Chicago, in 1977, at the end of its Broadway run. This long overdue Chicago slithered and sizzled on the Muny stage like a cobra freed from its basket.

Aladdin The Muny has a long tradition of staging one children's show each summer, but the appeal of these recent Disney musicals (The Little Mermaid last summer, now Aladdin) remains elusive. Now that Disney has a chokehold on children's entertainment, I suppose there's no avoiding these productions. Aladdin needed more than a genie to disguise its thin material.

Dreamgirls The most-anticipated production of the summer turned out to be the only major disappointment. In asking Jennifer Holliday to repeat her Tony Award-winning Broadway performance from 31 years ago, what initially must have seemed like an inspired idea resulted in a gamble that didn't pay off. Holliday was treated royally. She received inflated billing and a featured playbill biography, then gave little in return. Without a star performance at its center, the production felt disjointed and sterile. Also (and you can't blame this on Holliday) Dreamgirls was the season's only show where the production design felt small.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat The best thing you can say about this Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice curiosity is that the Muny staging was painless — which is saying a lot, because usually a date with Joseph is about as much fun as an appointment with the dentist. Thanks to scores of fresh young faces in the spirited cast, we got through it.

Pirates (or, Gilbert & Sullivan, Plunder'd) The season returned to the early promise of weeks one and two with this updated romp of The Pirates of Penzance. The show is still a work in progress. But after a slow start, it was a blast once the irreverent tone kicked in. By evening's end the vast amphitheater was shot through with more confetti than St. Louis has seen since Charles Lindbergh was feted in 1927.

The King and I The summer ended as strongly as it began. A lush staging of this venerable 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic clearly stated that the Muny has not forgotten its roots. This was the Muny's twelfth King and I, yet thanks to the engaging performances by its two title role players, the evening felt fresh. Happily, there's still an embracing place for mature musicals in Forest Park.

A simplistic report card for Isaacson's first season would include four A's, two B's and one Incomplete. Riding the crest of its newfound sinew, the Muny promises to announce the 2013 season by October. Bring it on.

Click here to read "Muny Magic," Dennis Brown's recent profile of executive producer Mike Isaacson.

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