Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Meet Me in St. Louis at Paper Mill:
Also see Bob's review of Happy Days
With the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons close at hand, Paper Mill continues its season dedicated to attracting large family audiences with its spanking new production of the stage version of the beloved film classic Meet Me in St. Louis. It should prove a pleasant respite from the rigors of holiday shopping for frenzied parents and their acquisitive children.
Return with the artists at Paper Mill to St. Louis in the summer of 1903 (as recreated with warmth and Technicolor in 1945 by the Arthur Freed unit at M.G.M.). With growing excitement, the Smith family awaits the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World's Fair of 1904). Anna and Alonso Smith's older daughters are going through romantic contretemps: high school senior Esther is being ignored by John Truitt, the boy next door; and eldest sister Rose doubts the sincerity of boyfriend Warren Sheffield as she awaits a long distance phone call from him. Their son Lonnie is going off to Princeton in the fall. Add to the household an avuncular grandfather, a feisty Irish maid and two younger, contentious daughters, Agnes and the fabulist Tootie. A big crisis is about to descend. In order to secure an important promotion, Alonso has accepted an offer to head his firm's New York office. He is determined to relocate his family there despite their severe unhappiness about making such a move. Even if you have never seen the movie (the Sally Benson stories on which it is based have long been out of fashion), this is a family musical set-up that guarantees a happy ending.
Of course, any stage production of St. Louis has the unenviable task of competing with our memories of Judy Garland in the beloved classic film on which it is based. Still in all, it is always pleasant to hear her evergreen classics ("The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") sung live in the theatre. And for those of us who have always regretted that the talented songwriting team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine did not provide a greater number of original songs for the film, there are more than a half dozen "new" Martin and Blaine songs, several of which deserve to be classics in their own right. These songs are often assigned to what were non-singing characters in the MGM. film.
Several of these songs are among this production's highlights. Christian Delcroix as the Princeton-bound Lonnie Smith delightfully leads the toe tapping, syncopated "Banjoes." My favorite added song (as well as the most familiar) is the exceptionally beautiful ballad "You Are For Loving" which Martin and Blaine originally wrote for Liza Minnelli to sing in the 1963 Off-Broadway revival of "Best Foot Forward." It provides an unassailable second act duet here for John Truitt and Esther (Brian Hissong and Brynn O'Malley). Patti Mariano as Katie, the Smith family maid, draws all of the charm and joy from the jaunty Irish accented "(give 'em) A Touch of the Irish," in which she advises Rose and Esther on techniques to attract men.
Broadway pros Donna English and Gregg Edelman as Anna and Alonso, the Smith parents, tenderly deliver the warm and reflective "Wasn't It Fun." English also scores giving motherly advice with "You'll Hear a Bell" (added to the stage version after Broadway), and Edelman beguiles with "A Day in New York." Julia Osborne and Patrick Cummings as sister Rose and her boyfriend Warren also get their own brightly delivered courtship number, the winsome "Raving Beauty" (also interpolated from Best foot Forward. Although it has been revised since his passing and the Broadway production, it should be noted that the book for the stage version is by the redoubtable Hugh Wheeler. Although his integration of all of these songs isn't nearly seamless, it is certainly above par for the course as ventures such as this go.
Among five dropped "new" songs, three were written to provide big production numbers for the exceptionally lavish Broadway production which ran for over eight months at the Gershwin during the 1989-90 season. These included the delightful Halloween themed "Ghosties and Ghoulies and Things That Go Bump in the Night"; the lilting second act opening ice skating number, "Ice"; and the pedestrian "Paging Mr. Sousa," an eleven o'clock production number set at the opening of the World's Fair.
The principal set at first reveals the front of the large and comfortable Smith house which opens across the width of the Paper Mill stage to reveal the main floor of the evocative Smith house with rich and loving detail. It is well designed by Rob Bissinger. However, the façade opens and closes repeatedly in what comes to feel like metronomic fashion. In the first act, only once is it moved out of sight (for the inevitable "Trolley Song"). As a result, similarly to the movie, this production feels more like a play with music as opposed to a full fledged musical, despite the extensive musical program. This may be unavoidable with the current script adaptation, but would that director Mark Hoebee had been able to transcend this limitation.
The best dance number by choreographer Denis Jones is to "Banjoes," now moved to the second act Christmas ball. The dance is aided considerably by the superior music writing. The brightly colored costumes are by Thom Heyer. Unfortunately, the overly elaborate, poorly fit, and unrealistically stiff wigs and thickly applied make-up at the opening performance detracted from the qualities of youthful innocence and femininity essential to our full engagement with Esther, Rose and the female ensemble.
Paper Mill's Meet Me in St. Louis is a sweet, charming and sentimental musical chock full of exceptional songs by Martin and Blaine. Additionally, there are three delightful period numbers, the title song, "Skip to My Lou" and "Under the Bamboo Tree." It would be hard to find a match for the quality and craftsmanship of this score on the current American theatre scene. Parents seeking quality professional musical theatre, which is guaranteed not to make them or their children uncomfortable, can feel secure in attending Paper Mill this holiday season. And, if the fates allow, have yourself a merry, little Christmas, now, and for many years to come.
Meet Me in St. Louis continues performances (Eves: Wed., Thurs., Sun 7:30 p.m.; Fri., Sat. 8 p.m.; Mats: Thurs., Sat., Sun. 2 p.m.; Extra perfs: 11/20- 7:30 p.m.: 11/21- 2 p.m.; 12/11- 6:30 p.m.; No performances 11/22; Eve:12/16) through Dec. 16, 2007 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org
Meet Me in St. Louis - Music and Lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine; Book by Hugh Wheeler; directed by Mark Hoebee