by Blythe Smith (OnStage Colorado)
Littleton Town Hall mounts a solid production of the Christmas-themed show
Meet Me in St. Louis, based on the classic 1944 movie starring Judy Garland, tells the story of a year in the life of the Smith family, set against the backdrop of a city preparing for the opening of the 1904 world’s fair.
Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you might recognize the music — if not “The Trolley Song” (“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley!) or “The Boy Next Door,” then almost certainly “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The play is essentially the movie, adapted for stage.
The story is about the Smiths, an upper middle class, middle American family with a lawyer dad, two teenage daughters, a teenage son, a couple of younger moppets, and an Irish maid. It’s intended to showcase the family in a series of vignettes that give them a chance to sing through the seasons: summertime, Halloween, a Christmas ball. The older son is leaving for college, both teenage daughters are in love, and the younger girls are full of mischief.
A wrench gets thrown in everyone’s lives when dad gets an offer to take a senior role at his firm’s New York office? But can they possibly leave St. Louis? Right before the World’s Fair?
If you’ve seen the movie, you know how this will end, and if you haven’t, you can probably guess. Groundbreaking this play is not, but it isn’t intended to be. Rather, it’s heavy on vintage nostalgia with enough “Christmas” thrown in to make it holiday appropriate. Clearly, it is of its time. In most modern musicals, the songs drive the plot forward. Here, as in many 1940s productions, it usually feels like they had an idea for a song and worked the plot around to fit it in. In other words, the songs don’t feel very organic. Why, exactly, do they need to sing about a trolley?
Well, they don’t. But singing about trolleys is fun, and that’s the reason they do it.
And the show is fun. The cast has plenty of energy and enthusiasm, and the costuming and be-wigged heroines, singers, and dancers are on point. The show itself is suited to both the venue and the season, as Old Town Littleton has that old time-y feel all lit up for the holidays. And well, ’tis the season after all.
The performances are mostly solid. I particularly liked Anne Jenness as Esther (the Judy Garland Role) and Kara Morrissey as her sister Rose. Jenness in particular has a great voice that is well-showcased here. And I have to mention Macaelle (Mac) Vasquez, who plays the youngest Smith, Tootie — and is only 7 years old. She brings tons of personality to the role and is truly a delight. I can almost hear her parents saying, “We’ve got to get this kid on stage.”
I have always enjoyed the staging at the Town Hall Arts Center, and this production is no exception. The stage is small, which sounds like it should be drawback, but instead usually seems like an asset. They use the space creatively, and it works. The Smiths’ dining room remains on stage for most of the production, with a porch that appears when the action is outside and a cast-propelled trolley that emerges when called for. It all works well and gets the point across.
The show itself is not only holiday-appropriate, but strikes me as particularly family-friendly and well-suited to older school-age children. It’s accessible, easy to understand, and has children who figure prominently in the story. Eight-year-old me would have enjoyed it even for the turn-of-the-century dresses and costuming alone. Perhaps it could make a fun and quirky holiday alternative to the ubiquitous Nutcracker.
Most adults will probably enjoy it too. And if you’re looking for a new ear-worm, I can almost guarantee you’ll leave singing, “Meet me in St. Lou-eee, Lou-eee…”
by Sonya Ellingboe (Littleton Independent)
With the 20th century barely under way, St. Louis residents, including the Smith family, were excited at the prospect of the 1904 World’s Fair, which ran from April 30 to Dec. 1, 1904. Also called “The Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” it celebrated the century since that nation-forming transaction was negotiated by Thomas Jefferson and others.
Writer Sally Benson had published a series of “Kensington Stories” stories in 1941 in the New Yorker, which offered the framework for the movie musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the background for the stage musical, with book by Hugh Wheeler and songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.
It’s perfect family fare for the holidays, as presented at Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton through December, with a pleasing score and a story about appealing Smith family members ranging from little Tootie to spirited Grandpa. All are eagerly anticipating the fair, but with different expectations …
There’s “The Boy Next Door” who capture’s Esther Smith’s fancy and the wall-mounted telephone as an aid to romance for sister Rose …
“Clang, clang clang!” The catchy “Trolley Song” presents an issue for scenic designers and is cleverly resolved onstage in this production by experienced designer Michael R. Duran as residents ride and harmonize.
Hanging over the family’s happiness is the prospect of a move to New York City, due to father’s business interests. With romance in the air and reluctance towards change foremost, the family dithers and fusses — and sings.
Casting is strong and voices blend smoothly throughout, with Anne Jenness as teen Esther Smith and Kara Morrissey as older sister Rose, both juggling romances, while brother Lon (Matt Fontaine) bounces through the house, seemingly oblivious to their issues. Wee Tootie Smith (Macaelle Vasquez, a St. Mary’s second-grader) tends to steal her scenes with some regularity and Hadley Brown plays next-in-line sister Agnes.
Caitlin Conklin and Rich Cadwallader are parents of this brood and Town Hall veteran Kevin Walton is good-natured Grandpa Prophater. (Walton has performed, previously with one or another of his now-grownup kids, in many THAC musicals.)
Audiences will enjoy the familiar music and Kelly Kates’ imaginative choreography as the story circles through several sorts of situations and ends up with St. Louis remaining home base after all.
by Mona Lott (Denver Theater Perspectives)
The St. Louis World fair was in 1904. The film, Meet Me in St. Louis starring the incomparable Judy Garland came out in 1904 and the stage musical based on the movie played in 1989. Town Hall Arts Center has currently staged it in this chaotic, turbulent era of cell phones and the internet and it provides a stark contrast to life in 2019.
That contrast may be the charm of Meet Me in St. Louis with music that is rather simplistic, like the times and a book so insipid in it’s cheerful, idealistic presentation of one family’s day to day life on the eve of the St. Louis World Fair that it becomes mind numbing like a Hallmark Channel Christmas Special.
The show is rather unremarkable in that it was only nominated for four Tony Awards and received none. That may be attributed to the story which is severely lacking. A world in which having dinner an hour earlier causes so much bedlam and turmoil, hardly provides the dramatic narrative or emotional complexity that most Broadway successes ensue and most audiences have come to expect.
Even so, there is some comfort in dwelling in this era and relishing in a show so squeaky clean that you can still smell the lye in the water. Town Hall is smart in producing this musical during the holidays. It’s kid friendly and fun for the whole family with no fear at all of any vulgarities or questionable themes.
Given that, THAC gleefully embodies the production and presents it with much aplomb and competency. The cast is rather large for the small theater, but never seems to crowd the stage or overwhelm the space. Bob Wells has staged them with expertise in such a way as to use the small space to their advantage. The clever staging excels in it’s execution especially during the Trolley song when Scenic Designer Michael R. Duran manages to not only bring one on stage but manages to drive it around with passengers on board and a conductor mapping the way.
Choreographer, Kelly Kates also takes advantage of the cast creating dance numbers that fill the stage with joyful abandon and provide some of the more exciting moments in the show. The choreography is most effective in the finale, when the entire cast gleefully dances in evening gowns and black tie.
Terri Fong-Schmidt can take credit for those, having already provided numerous period costumes throughout the show she meets the challenge head on of putting all the men in tails during the shows final moments. Her costuming never disappoints in Meet Me in St. Lluis, and provides much of the success in conveying the era and time of the St. Louis World Fair.
Music direction by Donna Kolpan Debreceni is at it’s best, showcasing strong solo voices and wonderful sound from the ensemble numbers. The accompaniment is prerecorded, but the actors sing with it as if there was an orchestra playing live backstage and it blends seamlessly with the superior singing voices of this cast.
Meet Me in St. Louis at Town Hall Arts Center is sweet and innocent, making it a family outing perfect for those willing to leave the trappings of modern life behind and embrace the simplicity of 1904. Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair, but if you are looking for an innocent, non-feather ruffling show with an enthusiastic cast, delightful period costumes and some great singing voices, you must meet me at Town Hall Arts Center.