BWW REVIEW: Stoneham's MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS Is White Bread Americana
Book by Hugh Wheeler; songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine; based on "The Kensington Stories" by Sally Benson and the MGM motion picture Meet Me in St. Louis; directed by Caitlin Lowans; musical direction, Bethany Aiken; choreography, Ceit Zweil; scenic design, Megan F. Kinneen; costume design, Tyler Kinney; lighting design, Christopher Ostrom; sound design, John Stone; props master, Lisa Guild; production stage manager, Jennifer Moody
Cast in Alphabetical Order:
Esther Smith, Sirena Abalian; Tottie Smith, Skylar DiCecca; Lucille Ballard, Tara Feeley; Grandpa Prophater, William Gardiner; Ensemble, Molly Geaney; Agnes Smith, Natalie Hall; Lon Smith, Daniel Irwin; Katie, Liliane Klein; Eve, Adele Leikauskas; Mrs. Anna Smith, Susan S. McGinnis; Tootie Smith, Chloe Nasson; Warren Sheffield, Ryan O'Connor; Clinton Badger/Motorman, Eliott Purcell; Sidney Purvis, Tyler Rosati; Mr. Alonso Smith, Robert Saoud; Peewee Drummond/Postman, Zachary Stevens; John Truitt, Felix Teich; Rose Smith, Gigi Watson
Performances and Tickets:
Now through December 28, Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham, Mass.; tickets are $50-$55 ($5 off for seniors, $15 for students with a valid ID) and are available online at www.stonehamtheatre.org or by calling the Box Office at 781-279-2200.
When producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minelli brought MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS to the screen as an extravagant Technicolor musical in 1944, their material, based on Sally Benson's quaint "Kensington Stories" of a middle-class American family teetering on the brink of change at the turn of the 20th century, benefited from the American people's desire to retreat from the darkness of WWII into the nostalgia of simpler, more innocent times. But times, they are a changing, and in the embattled and cynical world of 2014, the stage musical MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS needs more going for it than three recognizable songs and the memory of Judy Garland.
The only significant plus in Stoneham Theatre's current lackluster production (through December 28) is the spunky performance of 18-year-old Sirena Abalian as Esther. Resisting the temptation to do a Garland impersonation, Abalian finds her own solid footing as the second oldest daughter of the St. Louis Smith clan, in love with her school chum and neighbor John Truitt (Felix Teich) but eschewing the pretentious feminine wiles of her older sister Rose (Gigi Watson) in pursuit of him. Abalian is funny and likable, and when she sings the classic songs "The Boy Next Door," The Trolley Song," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," her voice is strong, melodious and assured.
I wish that could be said of the rest of the Stoneham cast. Robert Saoud as the cantankerous Smith patriarch Alonso and Susan S. McGinnis as his dutiful wife Anna share a nice moment with their romantic duet "Wasn't It Funny?" but other musical numbers fall dreadfully flat. Director Caitlin Lowans' staging and Ceit Zweil's choreography are no help. Most of the time it seems that Lowans is just trying to keep the cast from bumping into the clunky sets while what should be energetic cakewalks, struts and square dances are inhibited by cramped stage space and a cast clearly bereft of suitable dance chops. Sets are also a mishmash of cartoon ice cream colored cutouts and realistic Victorian era furnishings. Scene changes are awkward and painfully slow, with the most notable misstep being the dual use of the Smith home exterior as both front porch and crowded trolley car. "Clang, clang," indeed.
With material as dated and weak as this Hugh Wheeler book and Martin and Blaine score, the director needs to elevate the story with a bold vision and eye-popping production values. Unlike other successful period pieces of its kind, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS has neither. It's missing the exuberant, winking nostalgia of The Music Man, the broad, playful pastiche of The Boyfriend, or the eccentric characters of You Can't Take It with You (although the obsession of the youngest daughter Tootie with dead and broken dolls, her precocious "Drunk Song," and her and her sister Agnes' macabre joy in retelling a Halloween tale of tortured cats would qualify as the latter).
An anemic three-piece band (two keyboards and a drum) do nothing to capture the pulsing, syncopated Ragtime of the era. Costumes do a better job of approximating the time period, but even they have a dullness about them and an off-the-rack feeling.
While MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS would seem like a suitable choice for holiday fare, it needs a bigger stage and a bigger budget than Stoneham Theatre is capable of providing. It also needs big voices, big dance numbers, a big band, and big energy to make the wispy story of a city and family preparing for the 1904 World's Fair seem like the biggest thing that's ever happened in their average work-a-day lives.
PHOTOS BY MARK S. HOWARD: The cast of Meet Me in St. Louis; Sirena Abalian as Esther Smith; the cast of Meet Me in St. Louis; Daniel Irwin as Lon and the cast