World’s Fairs – those gaudy showcases of civic and national pride, corporate promotion, new technology, consumerism, over-the-top temporary architecture, sideshow entertainment, and an occasional lasting imprint on the cities where they take place – have been a frequent setting for books, plays, and films. Showboat’s characters visit Chicago during its 1893 fair. Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins stops off, rather more darkly, at Buffalo’s 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Even Elvis Presley got into the act, turning up in Seattle in 1962 for It Happened at the World’s Fair. Meet Me in St. Louis, now playing at Other Voices Theatre in Frederick, MD, fits firmly within this tradition, using the run-up to 1904’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis as the occasion for its story.
The stage musical – book by Hugh Wheeler, music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane – is based on the 1944 movie of the same name, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Judy Garland. (By filming’s end, they had become a couple, ultimately resulting in, among other things, Liza Minnelli, born in 1946). The light domestic comedy centers around the comfortably affluent Smith family — they have a maid and are sending their son off to Princeton — in the year leading up to the Fair. The movie itself was a nostalgia piece, looking back on those happy golden days 40 years before, when there was no World War going on. The current stage version, which premiered in 1989, now comes with an even longer backward gaze.
Very much in the tradition of operetta and pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein musical comedies, Meet Me in St. Louis offers only a gossamer-thin plot, existing mostly as a frame on which to hang a series of cute, sweet, catchy tunes and lively dance numbers. The low-stakes plot elements include such things as whether the family should move to New York, whether the boy and girl next door will fall in love, and whether a romantic lead can find a tuxedo in time for a dance. These details don’t much matter; what matters are the performances.
Fortunately, the Other Voices production offers one delightful performance after another. Esther Smith (Kasey Taylor) is as perky as one could ask for in the role originated by Garland. Taylor does a fine job of singing under control in the pretty “The Boy Next Door,” letting loose somewhat more in the ”Trolley Song,” the show’s signature number. As her sister Rose, Jennifer Pagano displays a nice operetta-style soprano in parts of several numbers and has fun playing hard to get from her suitor, Warren Sheffield (Thomas Bricker). Serena Parrish and Ainsley Deegan play the youngsters in the family, Agnes and Tootie, getting every possible ounce of mischief from their characters. Rounding out the family are the girls’ thoughtful brother, Princeton-bound Lon (Adam Blackstock); cantankerous, blustery father Alonzo (Steve Cairns), who thinks he knows best, but doesn’t; kindly, quirky grandfather (Samn Huffer); and nurturing, dutiful mother Anna (Jill Worley). The family employs a classically sprightly Irish maid, Katie (Jessica Graber), who puts up with the family’s foibles while cooking lovely food. The boy next door, John Truitt (Owen Raynor), gets to be adorable pretty much full time.
Here’s the thing: they all sing and dance really well. As might be expected in a cast of this size, there are ensemble numbers galore: the title number, of course; the “Trolley Song,” “The Banjo,” and “Skip to My Lou,” among others. Choreographer Donna Grim’s dances are well designed, and the cast executes them with energy and without a misstep. Many solo or small group numbers shine as well. Katie leads Rose and Esther in the (what else) sprightly “A Touch of the Irish.” Anna’s “You Hear a Bell” is a sweet ode to remembered love, which Worley delivers in the show’s purest singing voice. In an effective comic duet, “Raving Beauty,” Warren woos Rose with pretty words, which Rose throws back in his face. Esther’s sadly sweet “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has become a holiday staple. Like its contemporary hit, Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” it must have had a special resonance in 1944, with so many families separated by their members being overseas.
Interestingly, several of the show’s songs were not written for the 1944 movie or its stage adaptation, but rather were period songs interpolated into the score. “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1904), “Skip to My Lou” (traditional), “Over the Bannister” (1888), and “Under the Bamboo Tree” (1902) fall into this category. The inclusion of the last of these might well be rethought, as its lyrics – having to do with exotic African natives cavorting in the jungle – set one’s teeth on edge nowadays. True to period, yes, but verging on offensive.
The quality of the technical production matches that of the cast. Lee Hebb’s attractive, unbusy set has light brown and yellow colors on the upstage flats, while featuring a double row of white scrolled borders above the rear of the stage, framing four curtained panels: pay attention to what’s done with them at the show’s conclusion. The set’s motif continues as a wall painting on the audience left side of the house. A colorfully painted mobile unit effectively serves as the trolley in the “Trolley Song.” Mike Brown’s lighting scheme does its job unobtrusively, its signal moment being the dimming of the main stage lights during a romantic scene between John and Esther, leaving the sweethearts in cool, blue evening light. The costume designs of Mary Boyce, Patty Byrne, and Nancy Speck are one of the production’s glories, filling the stage with a bright, warm, varied, palate of colors that delight the eye. The three-piece band stays in perfect balance with the singers.
Consider a show like Meet Me in St. Louis to be a bit of theatrical cotton candy, if you will; in Other Voices’ hands, it is a tasty confection.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.