Nostalgia and memory often get tricky, especially in Hollywood. Historical eras are rarely recalled with accuracy. In 1944, when MGM produced the lavish Technicolor musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” they created a glowing wartime tribute to a seemingly innocent period only 40 years earlier. This enormously popular film was so glossy and heart-warming that people seeing it today often wish they lived a century ago.
Yet we forget the comfortable lifestyle of the family portrayed on screen was not an option for most Americans in 1904. Many people, including children, toiled in sweatshops or barely survived as sharecroppers. Women couldn’t vote; folks got lynched; babies died at birth or in frequent epidemics; food and drugs were often dangerously impure. Movie director Vincente Minnelli made audiences long for an idealized world gone by that never really existed.
But enough of reality. Circle Theatre’s current production of the Broadway musical based on the MGM movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” is a beautiful, delightful experience that is nearly identical to the film in many warm and spirited ways. The production, exuberant from start to finish, has been Jeff-nominated.
Additional songs were written for this Broadway version by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, the original composers. The large Circle cast sings and dances its way through four seasons, summer to spring. Since we now live at a time when all shows seem to feature rude, dysfunctional families, it’s a treat to witness the happy, respectful Smith family. Once more, it’s impossible not to be drawn into this show’s nostalgic portrayal of the early 20th Century.
Director Bob Knuth has creatively adapted the intimate Circle stage and works wonders with the space. His cast is lively and irresistibly fun.
The show opens with the principals singing the title song. Everyone enthusiastically anticipates the upcoming World’s Fair, although it won’t open for another 10 months. There’s Tootie, the youngest of the four Smith daughters, a morbid, chatty little girl, played by Darragh Quinn Dolan. Agnes (Liz Schmit) is her closest sister. Lon, the only son who’s about to go off to college, is portrayed by Sean Effinger-Dean.
Mrs. Smith (Patti Honacki) is supervising Katie, the feisty Irish housekeeper (Sara Minton), as she prepares dinner before Mr. Smith (Brian Rabinowitz) returns home from his law office. There’s also a mischievous grandfather, portrayed by Russ Rainear, and the oldest two daughters, Rose (Jennifer T. Grubb) and Esther (Baylea Morgan).
Many people remember that Judy Garland played Esther-and never looked happier or lovelier-in the classic film. For once Garland was not playing the ugly duckling. She even married her director after the film was completed.
Since the telephone is mounted on the dining room wall, Esther attempts to hold the family dinner an hour earlier than usual, in order to give Rose some privacy to receive a long distance call from her wealthy suitor, Warren Sheffield (Matthew E. Wilson) in New York. Katie, the outspoken cook, says, “Personally, I wouldn’t marry a man who proposed to me over an invention.” But Rose, playing hard-to-get, dismisses her beau.
Meanwhile, Esther tries to strike up a romance with the newly arrived boy-next-door, John Truett (Erik Labanauskas).
Soon grumpy Mr. Smith drops a bomb. They will be moving to New York City since he’s received a promotion. Everyone, including Katie, is devastated by the news. Will the family have to leave their beloved hometown before the World’s Fair even opens? As filmed during the height of World War II, the Smiths’ ultimate decision to stay planted in St. Louis reassured viewers that despite their current insecurity, nothing would be altered or disrupted for the American family.
The new songs-mostly strong, worthy additions to the familiar film score-are effortlessly integrated into the plot. “A Touch of the Irish,” featuring Minton, Grubb, and Morgan, is a rousing showstopper. Another number, “A Day in New York,” sung by Rabinowitz, is a joyful tribute to the pleasures to be found in Manhattan. Grandfather’s character, built up from the film, has some delightful musical moments, as well.
Some of the movie’s magic is lost. Not all of the glow could be transferred from screen to stage. In the film, for instance, each episode is introduced by an ornate, sepia-toned tintype, as if lifted from the Smith family album. As we come closer, the image bursts into vivid Technicolor. But mostly you won’t miss the MGM treatment.
As in the film, the males-the father and boyfriends-are rather colorless, except for eccentric, lovable Grandfather. That’s just the way it’s written.
Playing the Judy Garland character, Morgan does not attempt to copy the star’s phrasing or performance, although several of Garland’s costumes have been exactly replicated. Morgan’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” sung to her sobbing little sister, is sweet and touching. For 1944 audiences, that number had special wartime meaning for weary soldiers and their frightened relatives back home.
Sally Benson, a bank teller turned magazine writer, wrote a dozen autobiographical sketches, representing each of the months of the year. Appearing in the New Yorker as “The Kensington Stories,” these fluffy St. Louis vignettes depicting family life and teenage romance on the eve of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition were adapted into the original screenplay. Benson, by the way, was the real-life Agnes, the second youngest daughter.
Kevin Bellie’s energetic choreography features everything from square dances to cakewalks. There’s even a stunning Halloween ballet sequence, not in the film, with ghosts, a goblin with a pumpkin head, and dancing skeletons.
The set by Bob Knuth is solid looking, yet it’s surprisingly adaptable. The main location is the interior of the stylish Smith home, with dark wood and purple Edwardian wallpaper. But the room also opens up to become various exterior sites, such as for “The Trolley Song,” or a promenade at the World’s Fair in the final episode.
The lovely 1904 costumes, by Suzanne Mann, are multiple and detailed. Each character, even the ensemble, has a number of wardrobe changes. The musical director is Carolyn Brady Riley.
This Broadway version was not really successful in its initial 1989 run. Perhaps the show was so overproduced its warmth and intimacy got lost on the big stage. That’s far from the case at Circle Theatre.