Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot begins in the summer of 1903 and follows a year in the life of the Smith family as they await, with growing excitement, the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. The action focuses mainly on the romantic entanglements of the oldest daughters of Alonso and Anna Smith. Esther is pining for John Truitt, the boy who lives next door, while eldest daughter Rose questions the sincerity of her boyfriend Warren Sheffield. The family also includes son Lonnie, who will be off to Princeton in the fall, and the two combative younger daughters Agnes and Tootie. Anna's cantankerous father also lives in the house that is ruled over by the spunky but fun Irish maid Katie. However, a big change is about to descend upon the family that appears to threaten the livelihood and budding romances of the Smith girls.
The musical adaptation is fairly faithful to the 1944 MGM film, which starred Judy Garland and was based on Sally Benson's short stories that appeared in The New Yorker magazine. It includes the classic songs "The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," along with several additional numbers by the composers of those tunes, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine. Some of the added songs were previously heard in the 1963 revival of their musical Best Foot Forward, which ironically starred Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli. The added songs aren't quite on par with the beloved film tunes, and most will be forgotten as soon as they end, but they help flesh out the characters and provide several big dance numbers and solos for the large cast. There is very little conflict and too quick of a resolution in Hugh Wheeler's book, based on the screenplay by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, yet it still amounts to a warm, witty and charming story.
With a voice that is incredibly pure, strong, and simply beautiful, Holly Payne is a knock out as the quirky, feisty, go-getting Esther. The memory of Judy Garland's film portrayal may still be very clear to many audience members but Payne doesn't attempt to copy Garland's style in either her singing or acting. Instead, with perfect character choices and a voice that is warm, clear and crisp, she makes the role indelibly her own. As John Truitt, the boy next door whom Esther falls for, Jacob Goodman is charming and sweet. He and Payne make a winning couple and Goodman's singing voice is put to good use on the touching duet they share, "You Are for Loving."
Rob Stuart and Rochelle Barton are quite good as Esther's parents, with Stuart successfully evoking in just a few short scenes the family patriarch who realizes he may not have as much control over his family as he once thought he had and Barton just as effective in her well-delivered doses of motherly advice. Heidi-Liz Johnson and Stephen Serna make a lovely, bright and winsome couple as Rose and Warren, and Allan DeWitt is cheerful and appealing as Lonnie, including leading the fun, infectious and toe-tapping dance number "The Banjo." Katie Brown and Lily Nelson are cute, funny and endearing as the younger Smith daughters Agnes and Tootie. As Grandpa, Dan Stroud gets some of the best comical lines in the show and receives big laughs from his perfect delivery, and as Katie, Mary Jane McCloskey has fun with the jolly and cheerful "A Touch of the Irish."
Cambrian James' direction ensures the charm, love and nostalgic elements of the family centric show are front and center. His creative choreography includes some nice old-fashioned touches, like the extended square dance sequence that got big applause on opening night. The large main cast and ensemble achieve some lovely harmonies and bright vocals under Lincoln Wright's music direction. Brian Daily's set design includes period furniture and some large wall panels that evoke the images of the world's fair. He also has come up with a good representation for the iconic trolley. Mary Atkinson's meticulously designed and brightly colored costumes are sumptuous, as is the beautiful and rich lighting design from Kristen Peterson.
The combination of Daily's effective trolley design with Peterson's perfect lighting makes the final stage image that ends act one, with Payne's Esther belting out the last lyric of "The Trolley Song" as she leans out the back of the trolley while it moves across the stage and swiftly glides out through the stage exit, a lasting, memorable moment that is a feast for the eyes and ears.
The Hale Centre Theatre production of Meet Me in St. Louis runs through November 25th, 2017, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181
Songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine