Friday, November 11, 2011

REVIEW: “MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS” @ THE SUMMIT PLAYHOUSE

At its opening in 1944, the film version of Meet Me in St. Louis gave comfort to a nation reeling from wars on two fronts. I am glad to say that the Summit Players' production of the nostalgic musical provides the perfect feel-good antidote to the economic woes and wars on two fronts we face today.

The venerable 94-year-old company has mounted a sparkling production that tugs at your heartstrings and wows you with the talent and artistry spilling over that small stage. Productions of old shows are problematic in this age of technology. With their simple messages and unabashed emotion, they often come across as hokey, trite, clich├ęd. Nevertheless, the high spirits of the Summit Players' actor/singers are infectious and remind us of what we all share: a yearning for family and friends; the excitement generated by an upcoming, momentous event; sibling rivalry; and budding first love. That this human story unfolds to glorious music makes the experience all the more delicious!

In four vignettes, each showing change and a rite of passage and representing the seasons from summer 1903 to spring 1904 that conclude in the year of the St. Louis World's Fair/Exposition, Meet Me in St. Louis chronicles a year in the life of the Alonso Smith family of 5135 Kensington Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri. The only real complication in this easy-going story occurs when the family learns it must move away because Mr. Smith gets a new position and they realize how much they love their hometown.

Joe Hupcey has designed an eye-catching set on which the story unfolds. With a facade of the Smith's house that opens up to reveal a Victorian parlor and dining room, Hupcey effectively transports the audience back to that eventful year. Anne Lowe's turn-of-the-century costumes aid in the verisimilitude. A turntable revolves as the scenes change, necessitating a platform that makes for an uneven playing space, but that doesn't deter the cast from dancing and maneuvering around quite well. Peter Leonard’s lighting design is atmospheric, and Rich Lovallo's deft musical direction of a three-piece combo (keyboard, drums and bass) provides a appropriate accompaniment for the actors’ beautiful voices. Lauren Moran Mills' choreography is sprightly and interesting and very well-executed by the cast, and director Jay Mills' sure hand keeps the production moving smoothly and steadily without rushing.

The attractive family is headed by Todd Shumpert (above, second from left) as Alonso Smith Sr., a grumpy lawyer who is working very hard to support his large family, and Stacey Petricha (far left) as his wife Anna, the mainstay of the home who keeps everyone and everything on an even keel. Recalling her own early love for Alonso, Anna poignantly tells her daughter “You’ll Hear a Bell” and shares a lovely duet with her husband in “Wasn’t It Fun.” Neither song is great music, but the two actors put them across with style and beautiful voices. Firmly believing that the family that sings together, stays together, the rest of the clan warbles at the drop of a hat too. Great fun is found in “Under the Bamboo Tree,” a tune, like the title song, originally composed at the turn of the century; “The Banjo,” gaily sung by son Lon (Aaron Braden) and his friends at the annual Christmas Ball; and the title song, which is reprised several times throughout the show.

As Esther, the role originated by Judy Garland, Anna Lovallo (left) is incandescent, especially as she wistfully sings “The Boy Next Door” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Her rousing rendition of “The Trolley Song” (top photo) and a duet with John Truitt, “You Are for Loving,” mark Lovallo as a performer to watch. Her smile lights up the stage and her fancy footwork is mesmerizing. As John, Alex Post is a gawky man-boy with a beautiful voice, and while Sam Spare's millionaire Warren Sheffield borders on the smarmy, his voice redeems him too.

Sky Spiegel as older sister Rose provides wonderful support, as she bats her beautiful eyelashes and spouts French phrases in an effort to sound sophisticated. But the play is almost stolen by Naomi Fisch playing the youngest Smith, Tootie, the role originated by Margaret O’Brien. This adorable young actress has great stage presence and a very nice voice and dancing ability. Rounding out the main characters is the always wonderful Alice Regan Moynahan (right) as Katie, the Irish cook, who tunefully offers the girls a bit of advice on how to deal with men. All hustle and bustle, she commands the stage whenever she’s “on.” And Arnold Buchiane as the avuncular Grandpa Prophater is the relative everyone would love to have in the family.

The story of Meet Me in St. Louis hearkens back to a simpler time when outdoor electric lighting was a great technological advance (this point ties in nicely with Luna Stage's current production, The Dangers of Electric Lighting!) when the most pressing problems young people faced were whether they were noticed by the opposite sex or how they would cope if their entire family had to move to a new place. Musically, the show hearkens back to a simpler time, as well, when well-integrated musical numbers furthered the plot, and the audience came out humming the melodies! It’s a terrific show for the kids, especially those aged 8-12; teens may not find it “cool” enough for their tastes. So hurry on over to Meet Me in St. Louis in Summit through November 19 for a glorious evening of song, dance and family values. It's a perfect cure for your worries—at least for two hours or so!

Meet Me in St. Louis will be performed at the Summit Playhouse, 10 New England Avenue, Summit, through November 19, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. For information and tickets visit www.summitplayhouse.org/tickets, or call 908.273.2192

Photos by William Roome.