Meet Me in St. Louis
nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
December 14, 2006
Anyone with a taste for lavish production values and epic scale in a musical would be wise to think twice before heading to the Irish Repertory Theatre. Though Meet Me in St. Louis was first a blockbuster MGM movie and then, much later, a big Broadway show, Irish Rep's postage stamp stage necessitates a new look at the piece. Director Charlotte Moore supplies it: By focusing on character rather than spectacle, Moore tracks the warm heart of Meet Me in St. Louis, and the result is a spiffy vest-pocket production with a rather satisfying approach.
No amount of work on Moore's part can conceal the fact that, ultimately, not much of any consequence whatsoever happens in Meet Me in St. Louis. The Smith family (grandfather, father, mother, son, and four daughters) resides in St. Louis just after the turn of the 20th century, when the Louisiana Purchase Exposition is set to open there. The son is headed off to Princeton as the play begins; the elder two daughters each fret about a boy (one of them pining for "The Boy Next Door" in one of the score's best-known songs); and the younger two daughters provide mischief and comic relief, as does the grandfather. The father's offer of a promotion that would move the Smiths to New York doesn't even come up until the second act—and I'm sure you can guess how the problem is resolved. There is a distinct lack of action in the story, very little momentum to be found. And so Moore and company face an uphill battle.
For the most part, they climb that hill with grace. Great credit goes to choreographer Barry NcNabb, who offers delightful company numbers on the tiny stage (particularly the square dance to "Skip to My Lou"), slipping only with a surprisingly static rendition of "The Trolley Song." Musical director John Bell on piano leads a superb trio, backed up by cello and violin, which creates a lovely drawing room sound, pulling the audience into the Smith home. And the design team—simple but whimsical and evocative set by Tony Straiges, costumes by Tracy Christensen, and lighting by Brian Nason—makes a shoestring budget seem like much more than it is.
The cast is less entirely delightful, though all have splendid voices and many offer more than that. The role of Esther, originated by Judy Garland on screen, is unfortunately full of ingenuisms: She pines for a boy, loves a boy, doubts a boy, is disappointed by a boy, and gets a boy—there simply is not much room for variety. And the lovely Bonnie Fraser does little to overcome the challenge; she sings beautifully (even if some of the numbers are placed quite low in her register), but lacks strong personality or vivacity. Fortunately, that absence is compensated for by Meredith Kaye Clark as her older sister, Rose. Clark is thoroughly engaging and quite funny, and in great voice to boot, as a young woman who cannot decide whether or not to love the fellow she loves. Colin Donnell is winning as John Truitt, Esther's boy next door; Sarah Pfisterer glows as Mrs. Smith, offering the finest ballad of the evening in "You'll Hear a Bell;" and the redoubtable George S. Irving as Grandpa proves that there are no small roles indeed, making the most of his time on stage with effortless ease. The rest of the company is strongest in song, and fortunately the evening is filled with wonderful tunes.
Meet Me in St. Louis will never be a great musical, but Irish Rep's production hits enough right notes to make it an enjoyable trip down memory lane. Call it an imperfectly charming night at the theatre.