Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Beautiful Evening Celebrating Jessie Mueller and Her Talented Family in Support of the Sarah Siddons Society -- Theater Recap

Theater / Benefit Recap

So Beautiful
The Sarah Siddons Society Gala Tribute
Honoring Jessie Mueller
Featuring Heather Headley
Saluting the Mueller Family
Performances by Jessie, Abby, Matt & Andrew Mueller
With Parents Roger Mueller & Jill Shellabarger
Special Guest: Deanna Dunagan
Special Musical Number by Stephanie Binetti & Jameson Cooper
Hosted by Bill Zwecker
Artistic Director: Dominic Missimi
Music Direction by Doug Peck
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
April 27, 2015
(This isn't really a review as much as a recap, but my pinnacle rating is nonetheless merited.)

Yesterday morning, the 2015 Tony Award nominations were announced. In addition to having seen a handful of nominated shows--in New York or Chicago--it was fun for me to note that I've seen 15 of this year's nominated actors and actresses onstage, whether in their nominated roles or merely somewhere, sometime.

Event photos by Seth Arkin /;
please provide attribution when reposting.
This got me to counting up 75+ Tony-winning performers I've caught in action at some point.

Including 2014 Best Leading Actress in a Musical Jessie Mueller, who I had the great pleasure of seeing Monday night at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, where she was bestowed the Sarah Siddons Society's 2015 Actor of the Year award.

There were numerous wonderful aspects to the evening, including superlative performances by Jessie, her extremely talented siblings--two of whom have also "made it to Broadway"--and 2000 Tony and Sarah Siddons Award Winner, Heather Headley.

But beyond the excellent entertainment value of the event--grandly put together by Sarah Siddons artistic director, Dominic Missimi, a longtime Northwestern professor and musical theater department chair, as well as director of numerous musicals at the host venue--what made the night special was the local-girl-made-good vibe in celebrating Mueller's accomplishments.

This was amplified by Jessie's graciousness--and that of her parents, brothers and sister, who were also saluted--as well as the great cause that was being supported: the funding of scholarships for musical theater students at Northwestern, DePaul, Columbia College and other local institutions.

So ahead of a rundown of what I saw and heard--and photographed, which was permitted--I'll just abet the local pride angle by noting that the Muellers are from Evanston, just one town over from my Skokie home.

And as I told Jessie when she kindly signed my program after the gala, in May 2011 I had seen her--and her brother Andrew, as well as others who have enjoyed nice successes since--in a rather intimate production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along by The Music Theater Company a venue in Highland Park I'd never been to before nor since.

Less than half a year later, Jessie was starring on Broadway alongside Harry Connick, Jr. in a revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

Following four more impressive New York credits, in January 2014 came her starring role as the subject of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, for which she picked up Broadway's most prestigious honor that June.

And her star continues to rise meteorically, with the lead in a new musical adaptation of the movie Waitress seemingly up next on her Broadway conquest.

So it's certainly understandable that the Sarah Siddons Society--which since 1952 has bestowed the same honor on such legends as Helen Hayes, Geraldine Page, Carol Channing, Bette Davis, Angela Landsbury, Lauren Bacall, Julie Andrews, Chita Rivera, Patti LuPone and many more--decided to recognize and fete Jessie Mueller, who in a brief acceptance speech admitted, "It still boggles my mind that somebody might know who I am."

Adding to my fun in attending the benefit gala is that in my years of passionately patronizing Chicago area theaters, I've also come to know who some of the other theatrical Muellers are as well

I most recently saw father Roger Mueller just this January in a sensational West Side Story at Drury Lane Oakbrook and still fondly remember Andrew's stellar turn as Huckleberry Finn in a 2010 rendition of Big River, which his brother Matt cited Monday night as his all-time favorite musical before the Mueller gang--including Matt's twin Abby, who is in Kinky Boots on Broadway--delivered a medley from that show.

(For the record, I now know I saw Jessie Mueller at least a couple other times in Chicagoland theaters--in Animal Crackers at Goodman and Curtains at Drury Lane Oakbrook, both in 2009--but her roles were too small to merit her inclusion in my Shows Seen database, and I can't say I acutely remember her performances.)

Attending the gala with my mom, it was touching to hear Roger Mueller and Jill Shellabarger--who works with musical seniors in Skokie--speak proudly about their children.

In fact, there were so many noteworthy moments Monday night, I think it best to run through them in bullet form.

● Bill Zwecker of the Sun-Times hosted the event after being introduced by Dominic Missimi.

● Heather Headley, who won her Tony for starring in the musical Aida, demonstrated the vocal exquisiteness of a Broadway leading lady--as did the night's honoree--albeit with a nice twist.

She sang songs that she "wasn't allowed to sing on Broadway" as they are performed by men in the shows they're from: "Maria" (West Side Story), "Bring Him Home" (Les Miserables) and "Make Them Hear You" from Ragtime, in which she starred on Broadway.

Headley, who now lives in Chicago, also noted that she got her first paycheck at the Marriott Theatre, and her Equity card. 

● Michael Hendricks, the Production Stage Manager at Marriott Theatre for 30+ years, was given the honor of introducing the Mueller family.

● Roger Mueller saluted the Sarah Siddons Society for its "so crucial" work and thanked the audience--and all theatergoers--for the "investment you have made in our family."

● Matt and Andrew Mueller sang a wonderful version of "Agony," a song sung by two brothers in Into the Woods. And they also sang "Sisters" from White Christmas in one of the evening's most fun performances.

● In introducing her rendition of Patti Griffin's, "Up to the Mountain," Abby Mueller noted that it had been introduced to her by Bernie Yvon--a great local musical theater actor who died last year in a car accident and to whom Monday's event was dedicated.

● As with Headley and most of the performers, Abby was accompanied by music director Doug Peck on piano, whose playing impressed all night.

● Jessie was highly praised in nice speeches by two local directors who had worked with her locally, Matt Raftery and Charles Newell.

● From the Marriott's current production of Anything Goes, Stephanie Binetti and Jameson Cooper sang "You're the Top" with new lyrics penned by Kingsley Day to salute Jessie while slyly referencing the shows she's been in and her success.

● Missimi illuminated the crowd on Sarah Siddons having been an 18th century Shakespearean actress in England--the Society took its name from a reference to the actress (and acting excellence) in the 1950 film All About Eve--who, like Jessie Mueller, had a father named Roger, a sister and two brothers.

● Deanna Dunagan, a 2008 Tony Award winner for her remarkable performance in August: Osage County, and a Sarah Siddons Leading Lady Award recipient--I also recognized other such past honorees, Paula Scrofano and Heidi Kettenring, in the audience--read salutes to Jessie Mueller that Missimi had elicited from Michael Mayer, Harry Connick, Jr., Audra McDonald, Chita Rivera and Carole King.

● Among many great sentiments, I noted Connick having called Mueller "truly one of the great artists with whom I have ever worked" and King lavishing high praise in conveying that "you so deserve this award."

● In accepting her Sarah Siddons award with a short speech that she admitted fazed her much more than reciting lines written for her, Jessie Mueller noted that "some of my favorite professional moments were created here," presumably meaning both the Marriott Theatre specifically and throughout the Chicagol area. She also made a point of thanking the Sarah Siddons Society for "supporting the next generation of artists."

● Demonstrating her remarkable voice, Jessie Mueller first sang "Being Alive," a Sondheim song from Company; midway through she deviated from a traditional interpretation to rather interestingly twist it into something of a country hoe-down, accompanied by a fiddler and guitarist.

● Mueller then delivered a truly awesome version of Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" from Beautiful.

● Sandwiched around the Big River medley by all the Mueller sibs, Jessie sang beautiful duets with sister
Abby and with Heather Headley.

● Lasting about 2 hours, the entirely enjoyable show ended with a full cast finale of King's "I Feel the Earth Move" on which both Jessie Mueller and Heather Headley truly dazzled.

● Following the performance, I wandered over to where some official photos were being taken and snapped a few of my own, while also speaking briefly with Jessie in seeking her autograph.

A few more of my pictures are below.

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