The Village Theatre's production of “Meet Me In St Louis” may be about the most polished musical I've seen in a long time, yet it managed to not feel glossy or insincere. With an elegant and impressive scenic design by Steven Capone and gorgeous costumes by Cynthia Savage, warmly lighted by Aaron Copp, the Turn-of-the-Century story of the everyday lives of one fine family created an authentic world for the play. This show, like the St. Louis that Mama Smith describes as “an old-fashioned place” is a fine example of how invested talent, expert direction and respect for the material can make an old, familiar piece feel vital and relevant while never abandoning its specific time.
The excellent cast, directed by Steve Tomkins with Musical Direction by Tim Symons, inhabited this home with distinct and vivid characters, all engaged in trying to make their way into a changing world, a new world represented by the 1904 World's Fair and by two sisters trying to build romantic relationships with two young men. The songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane are period melody with bright and witty, sometimes hokey lyrics and heartfelt sentiment. The acting was excellent throughout and the dance numbers were accomplished and impressive without ever taking us out of the story.
A good part of the success of this production was that it never felt like it was milking the material for nostalgia, or that it was even aware that it was nostalgic, but instead it remained firmly placed in the immediate present of that particular time and place. As a result, the nostalgia, the sweetness drawn by the contrast between what was and what is, was accomplished by the audience. The other major reason for the show's success was the ton of talent on stage.
Leading that was the wonderful performance of Ryah Nixon as Esther Smith, the role made famous by Judy Garland in the 1944 film version. I apologize for even mentioning that, because Ms. Nixon never borrows a wink from Garland, and her Esther is entirely her own creation. Her knockout singing voice set the tone for the entire show with “The Boy Next Door” and her performance of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was equally beautiful. Even more important, Ms. Nixon is a terrific actress and she made every song feel like the deepest emotion of the character given voice. Musical theatre requires the performer to meet the demands of both of those words, and that was Ms. Nixon's particular achievement. Not that she was the only one who managed that.
As Mrs. Smith, Frances Leah King had the substance to be an impressive matriarch and the warmth to be a loving wife and mother. Her song, “You'll Hear a Bell” convincingly created the depth and emotional wisdom the character requires. As Esther's sister, Rose, Bryan Tramontana was sparkling and lovely, again always making her songs come out of the character and the situation. I liked both of the romantic suitors, Jason Kappus as Esther's serious young man, John Truitt and (on the day I saw the show) William Williams as Warren Sheffield, Rose's decent but rather less substantial beau. John Patrick Lowrie was excellent as the loving Father and Bobbi Kotula made great sport of the vivacious Irish maid, Katie. The two younger sisters, played by Analiese Emerson Guettinger and Katie Griffith, were delightful and extremely talented, performing their songs excellently and never getting too cute or too ingratiating. The drama of this story, the play, was beautifully controlled throughout and the performances were all impressively balanced and effective.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is a big musical told through a very intimate story, and it is charming in a way that only musicals can be. The fact that the culminating scene takes place at Christmas has made this a “holiday” show, but there's nothing in this show that limits it to being only seasonally appropriate. With this good a cast and this level of accomplished artistic direction, it's simply a great show for any time of year.
PICTURED ABOVE: Ryah Nixon (Esther Smith), John David Scott (Lon Smith, Jr.), Katie Griffith (Agnes Smith), Analiese Emerson Guettinger (Tootie Smith), and Bryan Tramontana (Rose Smith)
PHOTO BY: Jay Koh.