Meet Me in St. Louis a Clanging Hit for Village Theatre
Hugh Wheeler penned the book (based on "The Kensington Stories" by Sally Benson), faithfully following the screenplay of Vincente Minnelli's beloved 1944 film starring his soon-to-be wife Judy Garland. Like the movie, the stage version, which bowed on Broadway in 1989, delivers a charming homage to a bygone era of innocence, circa 1903. St. Louis is bubbling over with preparation for the much-anticipated 1904 World's Fair, also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and hailed as the grandest ever celebration.
The Village production is sweet, perhaps sentimental, but not saccharine. Think back to a time when the term "family values" was something other an empty phrase spouted by pompous politicians. A time when fashionable women were curvaceous rather than super-model thin. And a time when twitters were songbirds or gaggles of gossiping gadabouts.
So it is with these typical upper middle class folks at 5135 Kensington Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri. We share four seasons with the Smith family, starting with summer 1903 and ending in spring 1904. Mr. Smith is a put-upon lawyer and his devoted but forthright wife mothers their five children. The two older sisters, Rose and Esther, have their eyes set on romantic possibilities, while eldest brother Lon prepares to enter Princeton. After Esther comes Agnes, who tries to keep up with her impish younger sister Tootie, who holds funeral services for her dolls before she buries them in the yard. And warm-hearted Grandpa Prophater is always ready with a comment or a story.
But this happiest of families goes into a tailspin when Mr. Smith announces that he has been promoted and is moving the family to New York. Unfortunately, he's the only one who's happy about it. Tensions rise as family members try to cope, and Tootie makes plans to check herself into an orphanage. But trust in the powers that were at M-G-M to give the show a postcard happy ending.
The production boasts an enthusiastic cast, all 26 of them. There isn't a clunker in this energetic ensemble of singers and dancers. The ultra-talented Ryah Nixon shines in the part of Esther. Headed to the New York theater scene in real life, she proves herself Broadway worthy. The voluptuous Nixon has a powerhouse voicethink, combination of Ethel Merman and Lorna Luft. Ms. Nixon exhibits her emotional range, from feisty to vulnerable to loyal, as she pines for the boy next door and deals with her rambunctious family. As Esther's older sister Rose, Bryan Tramontana scores with a mix of beautiful vocals and faux sophistication, as she and Esther feign airs to impress their suitors.
Esther is smitten with John Truitt (Jason Kappus), who just happens to be the boy next door, and Rose has the wealthy Warren Sheffield (Ian Lindsay) on a short leash. If Nixon and Tramontana have better voices than those of their admirers, Kappus and make up for it with period-style gallantry and heartfelt sincerity.
Analiese Emerson Guettinger isn't trying to steal the show, but as Tootie she's a standout and absolutely irresistiblefrom her precocious demeanor and saucy obsession with dying dollies to her cheeky candor. Guettinger is turning into a natural, a dynamic little pro that audiences adore. You'll want to rush onstage to give her a great big hug. As Tootie's slightly older sister Agnes, Katie Griffith not only has a sweet voice but projects a perfect blend of sibling rivalry and affection.
John Patrick Lowrie adds a touch of Robert Preston to his portrayal of Mr. Smith, especially in his second-act number, "A Day in New York," while Frances Leah King Mrs. Smith lends her lilting soprano ring out on "You'll Hear a Bell." When Lowrie and King duet on "Wasn't It Fun?," they become our dream parents, demonstrating their enduring love through song.
Central to the household is Katie, the cheeky housekeeper. The delightful Bobbi Kotula has her comedic timing down, and a great singing voice besides. She dances a mean jig when advising the young ladies on romance and men in "A Touch of the Irish." And let's not forget Larry Albert, who endows Grandpa with wisdom and heart.
The musical boasts two wonderful party scenes. At Lon's party, there's entertainment galore. John David Scott as Lon shows off his agility during the lively square dance, "Skip to My Lou," while Tootie, Agnes and Esther deliver a delightful rendition of "Under the Bamboo Tree." Actor Kristin Culp takes on hilarious in a bit part as the eager Eve, a flirty floozy with bobbing blonde curls and eyes for Lon. Culp wears another hat as well; she assisted with the choreography on the big dance numbers. Later, in a plot twist at the fancy dress ball, Esther saddles herself with three nerdy dance partners who outdo themselves in a hilarious spectacle of tacky maneuvers that would have Fred Astaire cringing. Hats off to the motley crew: Adam Somers, William Williams and Casey Craig.
You will recognize many of the classic songs from the score, mostly by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, on the off chance you haven't seen the movie: "The Trolley Song" in all its glory; the wistful "The Boy Next Door"; plus the show's title tune, actually composed by Andrew B. Sterling (music) with lyrics by Kerry Mills (new lyrics also provided by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane); and the haunting holiday favorite, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"sung exquisitely by Nixon's Esther to a devastated Tootie, it brought tears to this critic's sated eyes. Additional Martin and Blane songs that were not in the film play out well on the Village stage, for instance, a rousing song-and-dance number, "The Banjo," led by Scott.
Designer Steven Capone has outdone himself with stunning, tremendously detailed sets, including a marvelous trolley car, an elegant ballroom and, best of all, a fantastic reproduction of a Victorian homeinside, Craftsman woodwork, two stately-looking columns and an open staircase. Added in are authentic period antiques, a stained glass window and a lead glass insert in the front door. An elegant dining room set slides on and off stage, as does an antique salon set. Outside the cheerful yellow home, flowers grow as the seasons progress. They bud in spring and blossom in summer, while the leaves turn colors come fall before disappearing in winter.
Musical director Tim Symons' work on the vocals is stellar, and the small band handles the score well. Unfortunately, at times, the orchestra's overture and interludes seem slightly sharp and discordant. The Village Theatre should think about upgrading their sound system.
Most of the film scenes are reproduced in the stage production. The Halloween scene has been adjusted, and we miss the snowman scene, but the set almost makes up for its omission. Cynthia Savage's creations bring to mind Hello, Dolly!'s period costumes, with Esther's red ball gown radiating holiday cheer. But the fanciest finery come at the end when the whole family, including Warren, John and Katie, dons white couture and steps out to the World's Fair to reprise the title tune under a mini-arch of sparkling lights.
Village Theatre's Meet Me in St. Louis is a joyous production. So remove yourself from the world of texting and twittering for two hours and let this charming gift wrap itself around your heart.
Meet Me in St. Louis runs through January 3, 2010 at Village's Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front Street North, Issaquah, then moves to Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Avenue, Everett, January 8 to January 31, 2010. For more information got to www.villagetheatre.org.
Guest reviewer Starla Smith has written about theatre nationally (Theatre Week, Playbill) and in local Seattle press since moving to Puget Sound several years back. She graciously stepped in on this review as David-Edward Hughes, our Seattle correspondent, was Assistant Director with Steve Tomkins on this production of Meet Me in St. Louis.
See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.