Meet Me in St. Louis, music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, book by Hugh Wheeler, based on "The Kensington Stories" by Sally Benson and the MGM Motion Picture. Directed by John Saunders.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
NOT FROM THIS PRODUCTION (MGM's O'Brien and Garland); NO PHOTO PROVIDED
"All your troubles will be miles away..."
If your heart breaks when a little child buries her dead doll or when she smashes her snowman because she has to leave him behind when she moves away, this would be the show for you. Except. This is a case of "except" and there is good reason for that -- except there shouldnít be.
Too many people think of the movie starring Judy Garland and Mary Astor and Margaret OíBrien when they even hear the title of this show, which is a popular song from the turn of the previous century. In 1943 the 22 year old Garland played the sixteen year old Esther, a high school junior, and broke everyoneís heart except for those already broken by OíBrien as her baby sister Tootie. Holding that sobbing, hysterical child in her arms Garland crooned "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and a nation at war released its tears and cried for its losses, mostly the loss of its united innocence. It would be great if we could do that now. Except.
This isnít 1944. The beautiful production at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York isnít the big screen at a Loeweís or even the small screen in the dark in our living rooms. There are real live people breathing new life into this piece and they make us feel differently about their silly goings-on in St. Louis in 1903. Except, they really donít, but they don't have the same intensity in their impact.
The wonderful cast is doing a wonderful job in this wonderful show. Except. They cannot banish our memories of the equally delicious company that introduced this work and made it so much a part of our lives.
Quinto Ott as Alonso Smith, father of the clan, is perfectly cast, except he is too young for the role. Nevertheless he pulls it off beautifully and even regales us with his lush bass-baritones in the duet "Wasnít It Fun?" which he shares with Lisa Franklin playing his wife. Ott has been one of the bright joys of the Mac-Haydn season in other roles and "Father" is another bright spot. This man should have a career ahead of him if he chooses to pursue it and this could be one of those roles that follow him around, popping up every few years. Franklin is his equal in this show and her solo song about love, "Youíll Hear a Bell" works so well in her rendition that it almost seems as though Mary Astor must have sung it before, except she didnít.
Jamie Young as daughter number 3 - Agnes - was delightful. So was Rich Krakowski as brother Lon. Here is another performer who has delivered the goods all summer long, especially as Joseph in the Andrew Lloyd Webber show. In this performance he shows the warmth in his soul and he, more than any other Smith sibling, almost gets the sobs going and not for anything more than extending a hand, softening a blow. Itís a rich offering.
Mary Elizabeth Milton and Jennifer Bishop are the older Smith sisters, Rose and Esther. Their emotional trials with boyfriends form the core plots of the piece. Milton handles hers with humor and a certain aloofness that makes her performance enjoyable, a quality that is missing in the filmís Rose. Bishop in the Garland part is pert, perky and petite, three qualities that Esther requires. Another "Joseph...Dreamcoat" holdover (she was the Narrator) she sings well, although sweet singing comes with more difficulty than boisterous singing for her. She is at her very best in the "Christmasí number but really handles the "Trolley Song" like a trouper. When she roughs up her boyfriend, she is at the top of her acting chops.
As Tootie, the tot who tips the scales of this work into the maudlin, there is a delightful little girl (one of two alternating in this partt) named Shelby Kline. She has the charm, the innocence and the talent to pull off this trap role, but not the instincts for getting her audience to tear up. They will come in time, I am certain, but right now she only has the all of other elements working for her.
In smaller roles, but showy ones, Nancy Evans delivers nicely as Katie, the housekeeper and MJJ Cashman is just fine as Grandpa. Joe Bettles is a funny Warren Sheffield - Roseís beau, and Ben Jacoby delivers another solid portrayal as John Truitt, the boy next door. Sorry boys, but this show belongs to the Smiths. Even Jacobyís fine singing in "You are for Loving" wasnít enough to take this show away from Ott, Krakowski and the ladies.
The best performance of the evening was actually delivered by a set. Kevin Gleasonís realization of the trolley for the first act finale was wonderfully delivered in the hands of Motorman Wes Urish and the company as choreographed by Karla Shook and directed by John Saunders. Itís a rare moment when a set piece brings on the tears but this one actually did it.
Jimm Hallidayís costumes were nicely in period, reminiscent of the movie but not replicas, thank goodness, and the all white finale was a nice touch with feathers replacing lace.
Set changes took a while, due to the size of some of the pieces, but they were all well done and worth the wait.
Except (there it is again). The music to cover those changes was thinner than usual. This theater needs something better. Please, wonít someone buy them a machine that will allow them make music instead of quasi-music. The quality of onstage performers has gotten very good here and they deserve something more to bolster them when they sing and dance so well. The physical quality of productions here is excellent and they get high ratings for trying something different in their scheduling. Itís this one element that just holds them back, prevents them from being a really first-class summer venue. A trio of musicians added to their piano and drums would be better than the synthesizer which sounds terrible in a show like this one which requires some real sound. Even a cruise-ship show click-track would be preferable.
Donít expect to cry at this show. Donít expect anything except good work from a talented cast and crew. Thatís what youíll get in this final show of the main companyís season.
Meet Me in St; Louis plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 in Chatham, New York through September 6. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-9292.