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A CurtainUp Review
Meet Me In St. Louis
An odd but extremely effective mixture of music and melancholy, Meet Me In St. Louis (itself based upon Sally Benson's novel The Kensington Stories) was one of the few works to reverse the typical trend of Broadway musical to big screen— in fact, it was over forty years before the first Broadway adaptation appeared at the Gershwin Theater, starring Donna Kane as Esther Smith (played memorably by Judy Garland in the movie) and Charlotte Moore as Mrs. Smith. Now Moore has brought the story back to life at the Irish Repertory Theatre (where she is artistic director) and I'm happy to report that there is still as much spirit as ever in the telling.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the well-respected Irish Rep knows how to stage a production, but Meet Me In St. Louis is in some ways a tricky show to pull off. Besides the inevitable comparisons between stage and screen (and the performers in each), the musical contains surprisingly complex dance numbers and some interesting staging challenges, all of which are overcome through Moore's careful direction and Barry McNabb's choreography (even more impressive given the limited room for performance). The set and lighting design, by Tony Straiges and Brian Nason respectively, are similarly well done. The set feels very much like a turn of the century dollhouse. The clever use of lighting fixtures brings the audience from trolley to fairground without stretching the bounds of credulity too far. And the costumes, designed by Tracy Christensen, are particularly fine, especially Esther's stunning red Christmas ball dress, which doesn't in the least suffer in comparison with Garland's outfit in the movie scene—nor does the music which is directed with tact and skill by John Bell.
Most critical to the success of any musical are its performers, and here as well this production rarely misses a beat. George Irving is probably the best known actor in the group, and his rendition of the good-humored Grandpa Prophater is spot on throughout. Almost all of the cast delivers similarly good performances, from Becky Barta's confident version of the maid Katie to Sarah Pfisterer's gentle Mrs. Smith (played by Moore in the original Broadway production) to Gabrielle Piacentile's feisty Tootie.
Esther, the heart of the show, is played exceedingly well by Bonnie Fraser, who has to somehow mix spirit, grace and forcefulness with wistful longing without seeming maudlin or trite. And so she does. Her beautiful rendering of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is one of the show's highlights.
The limitations of the production probably have less to do with performance and more with the format itself. There simply isn't quite enough time to give the story space to breathe and develop, and so, while the movie had a darkness to it which elevated it above the usual vacuous holiday fare, the storyline here is so accelerated as to undercut the narrative subtlety (the announcement of the family's imminent move doesn't even happen until a third of the way into the second act). The result is a rather lighter version than what might have been intended originally — a minor objection given Moore's careful and balanced direction which combined with mostly good performances creates a worthy revival that should have theatergoers singing (or at least humming!) its praises for a long time.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide