Based on Sally Benson's stories of growing up in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th Century, the property follows the middle-class Smith family through minor ups and downs over the four seasons leading to the 1903 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition. The narrative picks up steam when the family members face a slightly larger dilemma: hard-working Mr. Smith (John Hickok) announces he's moving the Smiths lock, stock, and Grandpa Prophater to New York City and family discontent ensues.
The stage musical, which expanded on the film but didn't improve on it, should in theory be intimate -- for what the enterprise really counts on to get by is low-key charm. Therefore, it's a good idea to have trimmed the 1989 cast of 40-or-so to an ensemble that fits tidily onto the Irish Rep's postage-stamp stage. Okay, it's a large postage stamp, strewn by designer Tony Straiges with a few gilt cabaret chairs and evocative props, and adorned with graphic references to St. Louis, circa 1900.
Martin and Blane added a number of songs for the stage version, including "A Raving Beauty" and "A Touch of the Irish." Moore has kept some of the additions, eliminated others and inserted a number for Mrs. Smith -- You'll Hear a Bell" -- that was apparently played in 1989 but not sung. Another song, "You Are for Loving, was originally written for Liza Minnelli to deliver in the 1963 off-Broadway Best Foot Forward revival.
For this manifestation to succeed, however, sturdy performers are obvious prerequisites. For the role of Esther Smith, played unforgettably on film by Judy Garland, the call has to go out for someone who shoos the superstar's memory out of observers' minds. It's also a challenge to find a little girl who shares some of Margaret O'Brien's cry-on-cue ability as darling cut-up Tootie. In that role, Gabrielle Piacentile knows her lines and the dance steps choreographer Barry McNabb has drilled into her. With her sly smile and blonde braids tossing, the tyke seems to sense how cute she is when conscientiously following Moore's instructions. Piacentile's knowing affect is enough to yield her palpable audience affection.
But precocity isn't the sort of characteristic to pull modestly-talented Bonnie Fraser through as an Esther busily pining for boy-next-door John Truitt (Colin Donnell). When Fraser gets around to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," she sings it nicely enough, but the actress doesn't have as inspired a take on Esther's other showstopper, "The Trolley Song." The only bit of the old MGM magic she actually exhibits is an uncanny resemblance to studio stablemate Kathryn Grayson. Modest ability also accurately describes the remainder of the cast -- with the exception of sweetly dignified Sarah Pfisterer as Mrs. Smith and the inexhaustible trouper George S. Irving as Grandpa Prophater, both of whom fare considerably better.
There's nothing fatally wrong with the production in the first act, but also nothing that makes you click your heels. Things pick up in the second act, particularly during "The Banjo Song," led by Princeton undergrad Lon Smith (Ashley Robinson) and eventually enhanced by another of McNabb's lively dance routines. Indeed, by the time the much-discussed and sung-about World's Fair is delighting the wide-eyed Smiths as well as their Irish retainer Katie (Becky Barta) and another boy and girl (Doug Boes and Kerry Conte), Meet Me in St. Louis has become cheery in the way enthusiastic community theater can often be. The score, however, is not very well played by a three-piece orchestra.
Ultimately, though, the MGM film goes much farther towards helping provide a merry little Christmas than this so-so stage version. Just check your local listings.
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