Go ahead, I dare you. Try to wipe the smile from your face at any point during the Irish Repertory Theatre's new revival of Meet Me in St. Louis. You'd have an easier time scaling the Empire State Building than resisting the charms of this murky adaptation of the classic 1944 film musical, which - against all odds, and then some - director Charlotte Moore has made into a creamy holiday confection.
Moore is ideal for the task, when you think about it. Not only because she's been surreptitiously developing her skills and reputation as a first-rate helmer of vest-pocket musicals for the Irish Rep, with her sparkling revival of Finian's Rainbow in 2004 and, even more arrestingly, the rock-epic Beowulf last year. But she also created a role in the 1989 Broadway production of the show, which is frequently described by those who saw it as "big," and not meant as a compliment.
Opening at the height of the British pop opera craze, the original Meet Me in St. Louis probably had to be oversized to compete. As the story is set in late 1903, in the months leading up to the now-legendary St. Louis World's Fair, the idea probably made sense as a way of evoking the hopeful, expectant nostalgia of generations past in an American context as far removed as possible from the rampantly British Les MisÚrables and The Phantom of the Opera.
According to most accounts, the production's huge scale dwarfed what is essentially a tiny human story about one ordinary family, the Smiths, in which practically nothing happens. Oh, the oldest two daughters are wooed and won, and the family faces an alarming personal crisis when Mr. Smith learns his company is transferring him to New York City. But, as in the film, the real story is in the dreams of the family members and the complex relationships and rivalries they let define - and almost destroy - them.
By zooming in on the Smiths, Moore reinstates the film's touching, fragile spirit, and allows the show to touch with its innate simplicity and innocence. ("Na´vetÚ" somehow isn't quite right.) And though Hugh Wheeler's book remains choppy, cueing in those wonderful Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane songs as might have a generic musical-comedy smash of 1921, the resulting show is still a guilty, giddy delight.
And, it must be added, as small as can be. A three-piece combo of piano (played by musical director John Bell), violin, and cello provides accompaniment, and everything is set against Tony Straiges's gentle, postcard-like set depicting the Smith parlor. When the performers kick up their shoes in a large dance number, what seems potentially dangerous on the tiny stage becomes an intimate look at how close-knit families celebrate when no one else is looking. (The straightforward, pleasant choreography is by Barry McNabb.) Some spectacle even creeps into the final scene, when Moore magically transports us to the fairgrounds proper for the introduction of electric lights, a surprisingly touching tribute to the bright future ahead.
Even so, the past haunts the casting in one crucial respect: Judy Garland now and forever owns the role of second daughter Esther, whose outlook on love moves from the wistful (with the song "The Boy Next Door") to the exultant ("The Trolley Song") and eventually the wise ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"). While Bonnie Fraser can't come close to erasing memories of Garland in the film, she's got a warmly trained voice and a lovely, shy manner just right for the girl who always loves from afar.
John Hickok and Sarah Pfisterer display fine voices and the properly arch period dignity as Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Agnes and Tootie, the youngest Smith sisters, are played by the overly precocious, yet likeable, Danielle and Gabrielle Piacentile. Ashley Robinson makes Smith son Lon a dandy dandy; Becky Barta earns some solid chuckles as the family's earthy Irish maid; and ever-valuable veteran George S. Irving brings plenty of loving bluster to the brood's grandfather. Merideth Kaye Clark is somewhat harsh as oldest daughter Rose, and Doug Boes, Colin Donnell, and Kerry Conte are decently cast, if nondescript, as various love interests.
Yet even they feel right at home at Moore's hearth, contributing to an evening as cozy as a mug of steaming hot chocolate. This is undoubtedly a halfway show, bearing neither the effusive joy of the original movie or the excitement of the best stage musicals. But treated honestly and lovingly it can still play like a winning, homespun hit; any other problems aside, that's just what this Meet Me in St. Louis does.
Meet Me In St. Louis