MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS - Irish Repertory Theatre
The Irish Repertory Theatre, one of the most successful Off-Broadway companies in New York, delivered a delightful present for 2020’s Covid Christmas - a screen performance of the musical “Meet Me in St. Louis”. Founded in 1988 to “provide a context for understanding the Irish American experience”, Irish Rep typically programs its seasons from classics by the likes of Sean O’Casey and Eugene O’Neill to contemporary dramas by playwrights like Conor McPherson and Brian Friel. Occasionally, it mounts musical productions: three years ago it staged a captivating production of the seldom-seen Alan Jay Lerner musical “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”. In 2007, Irish Rep staged the first Off-Broadway production of “Meet Me in St. Louis” which appeared on Broadway in 1989, having been adapted from the 1944 MGM musical starring Judy Garland and directed by Vincente Minellt.
Director Charlotte Moore and producer Ciaran O’Reilly, co-founders of Irish Rep, produced a new abridged and digital version, billed as “a holiday special in song and on screen’. The tried-and-true, “there’s no place like home” story centers on the All- American Smith household in turn-of-the-century St. Louis, excited by the prospects of their home city hosting the 1905 World’s Fair. In the course of the year, marked by seasonal holidays, the two older sisters, Esther and Rose are preoccupied with falling in love with respective suitors John Truitt and Warren Sheffield. Their brother Lon prepares to go off to college at Princeton. Younger sisters Tootie and Agnes get in innocent trouble. Mrs. Smith, the mother, keeps the peace. Irish housekeeper Katie is a one-man Greek Chorus of homespun observation, and Grandpa chuckles through it all. Mr. Smith, the father, is executive at the big company in town. When he announces his job will transfer him and the family to New York away from all they know and the glory of the World’s Fair, prospects for happiness seem dim.
Sounds corny, right? So what. The songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, perennial standards, are marvelous, the singing performances are too, and the unapologetically cherry and straightforward story-telling couldn’t be more welcome in these pandemic times. Writer Hugh Wheeler, whose legacy will rightly rest with “Sweeney Todd” and “A Little Night Music”, hews pretty closely the MGM musical, but the stage treatment and Moore’s adaptation here de-emphasize the role of Esther, i.e. the Judy Garland part, for a more ensemble approach.
Director Moore distinctly eschews the Zoomsical approach; no “Brady Bunch” matrix here. All the performances (casting is racially and ethnically mixed) were digitally recorded remotely then superimposed on illustrated backdrops. Sometimes the “cutting and pasting” gets a wee clumsy, as when two characters dance or Esther and John Truitt finally kiss, but this IS musical fable. The settings, Technicolor renderings of a household of practical means but still in high-Victorian decor, evoke the set design that enriched Minnelli’s original movie. For outdoor scenery, Moore cleverly uses archival photographs and postcards of the period that enhance the old-fashioned feel of the production.
Orchestrations by Josh Clayton are splendid. The overtures are performed by a seven piece on stage orchestra, with musicians masked and safely distanced. The song highlights deliver consistently. Shereen Ahmed (last seen as Eliza in the national tour of Lincoln Center’s “My Fair Lady”), as Esther, delivers a perfectly exquisite rendition of “The Boy Next Door”, equalled in reprise with the perfect tenor of Max von Essen (“An American in Paris”) as John Truitt and the beguiling, lesser known duet, “Over the Bannister”. Melissa Errico (“Finian’s Rainbow”) as Mrs. Smith brings new vitality to “You’ll Hear a Bell”. The show’s scene stealer is ten year-old Asian-American Kylie Kuioka as juvenile trouble-maker Tootie. She’s got spunk and a great voice. Plus, her precociousness as Tootie is a lot more entertaining than Margaret O’Brien’s brattiness in the movie original.
With its ready rhythm “Meet Me in St. Louis” goes down like a tonic and with its soaring beat “The Trolley Song” lifts the spirits as usual, but Esther’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” seems especially poignant this time around.
“Let your heart be light
From now on
Our troubles will be out of sight”
On to 2021!