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Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

Meet Me in St. Louis
Stoneham Theatre

Also see Nancy's reviews of Necessary Monsters and O.P.C.


Sirena Abalian
The Stoneham Theatre has revved up the way-back machine to stage the story of the multi-generational Smith family as they anxiously await the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis and prepare to spend their last Christmas in their beloved hometown. Meet Me in St. Louis was written by Sally Benson in 1941 and originally published in The New Yorker magazine as the semi-autobiographical "The Kensington Stories." It was adapted to become the 1944 motion picture of the same name which starred Judy Garland and introduced "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." In 1989-90, the Broadway musical with book by Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music, Candide, Sweeney Todd) and songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine ran for 252 performances.

Sad to say, Meet Me in St. Louis is showing its age, and the Stoneham production is hard-pressed to rejuvenate it despite the presence of a preponderance of earnest youngsters in the cast. There is much to relate to in the lives of the members of the Smith family as there are many transitions in the offing—their son Lon (Daniel Irwin) is heading off to Princeton, eldest daughter Rose (Gigi Watson) is anticipating a marriage proposal from wealthy Warren Sheffield (Ryan O'Connor), high school senior Esther (Sirena Abalian) is hoping to be struck by Cupid's arrow, and the pater familias (Robert Saoud) is weighing a promotion that will require moving the whole clan (including mother, grandfather, two younger daughters, and the Irish maid) to New York City. However, the close-knit family (that sits down to dinner together every night at 6:30 sharp) will find the way to resolve all of the conflicts, go to the Fair, and live happily ever after.

This kind of heart-warming Americana is an attempt at feel-good theater for the holiday season, but the story feels trite and representative of so much that is barely recognizable in today's fast-paced society. Would that life could be so uncomplicated that all problems might be handled with a song or a dance or a marriage proposal. As much as the plot stretches the bounds of credulity, there is the convincing performance of 18-year old, two-time IRNE Award-winner Abalian. Whatever she's selling, I'm buying. Esther learns many life lessons along the way as she grows from a love-struck adolescent to a mature young woman, and Abalian uses a combination of body language, facial expressions, and pacing of her speech to traverse that arc. Her spunky personality and terrific vocals are responsible for much of the limited spark in the show.

Watson keeps pace as her older sister and Susan S. McGinnis is loving and down-to-earth as their mother, Mrs. Anna Smith. Natalie Hall (capable as Agnes) and Chloe Nasson (devilish as Tootie at this performance) play the younger sisters, and Irwin is sweet as the long-suffering lone male sibling. Stoneham Theatre regular William Gardiner is the grandfather with a twinkle in his eye, in harsh contrast to Saoud's stern and strident Mr. Smith. He is rather one-note until his turnaround very late in the play, although he hits his song ("A Day in New York") out of the park. Liliane Klein (Katie) provides brassy comic relief in a rather stereotypical maid's role.

O'Connor and Felix Teich (as Esther's love interest John Truitt) both sing nicely, but are less successful in creating their characters. That goes for the ensemble as well, who sound good when they're singing and do an adequate job with Ceit Zweil's choreography, but one guy is rarely distinguishable from the next. Adele Leikauskas and Tara Feeley are deserving of mention, the former for her dance lines and the latter for her supporting role as Lucille Ballard. Director Caitlin Lowans makes good use of the full set, but goes awry with some of the choices she asks of the actors in the character parts and is unable to draw any nuance from the less-experienced ensemble players.

The simplicity of the times is reflected in the primitive scenic design by Megan F. Kinneen which focuses on the Smith's house, using hinges and sliding panels to alternate between the exterior and interior, with the front porch doubling as the trolley car when a destination sign hangs from the roof. Tyler Kinney's costume design is a high point, and Christopher Ostrom's lighting, and sound by John Stone are satisfactory (kudos to both for the fireworks at the Fair). Music director/keyboardist Bethany Aiken creates a jaunty, full sound with only two other musicians in her band, and it's a rare treat to hear an overture and entr'acte.

Meet Me in St. Louis is a homey family musical that may justify its place on the calendar during the holiday season, but it would take a more sparkling production to overcome the outdated story and relationships. It's at its best during the many musical numbers and whenever Abalian is center stage; but, while she is soaring on a higher plane, much of the show is struggling to achieve altitude.

Meet Me in St. Louis, performances through December 28, 2014, at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or www.stonehamtheatre.org.

Book by Hugh Wheeler, Songs by Hugh Martin & Ralph Blaine, Based on "The Kensington Stories" by Sally Benson and the motion picture Meet Me in St. Louis; Directed by Caitlin Lowans, Musical Direction by Bethany Aiken, Choreography by Ceit Zweil; Scenic Design, Megan F. Kinneen; Costume Design Tyler Kinney; Lighting Design, Christopher Ostrom; Sound Design, John Stone; Props Master, Lisa Guild; Production Stage Manager, Jennifer Moody

Cast (in alphabetical order): Sirena Abalian, Skylar DiCecca*, Tara Feeley, William Gardiner, Molly Geaney, Natalie Hall, Daniel Irwin, Liliane Klein, Adele Leikauskas, Susan S. McGinnis, Chloe Nasson*, Ryan O'Connor, Eliott Purcell, Tyler Rosati, Robert Saoud, Zachary Stevens, Felix Teich, Gigi Watson (*alternate in the role of Tootie Smith)


Photo: Mark S. Howard



- Nancy Grossman



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