When the trolley first appears onstage in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s thoroughly polished revival of
Meet Me in St. Louis, you can only see maybe a third of the vehicle; the rest is still hidden backstage. The motor-run contraption has stopped in front of the Smith residence on this Friday afternoon in 1903 to pick up Esther Smith (Brynn O’Malley) and the gang. But you can sense some consternation from the audience: “Is that it? Come on, show me the trolley!” And finally, after the tenth or eleventh reprise of the title song, the motorman goes forward and we see the entirety of the trolley, as designed by Rob Bissinger. “Yes! Thank you!” we sigh in relief.
Just as Paper Mill scored earlier this year with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, another MGM movie musical that failed to make it on Broadway in the 1980s, Meet Me in St. Louis feels perfectly at home here, in large part thanks to its stunning production values — including Thom Heyer’s meticulously designed costumes and Charlie Morrison’s spot-on lighting — and a full size cast.
The 1944 MGM film version, based originally on Sally Benson’s “5135 Kensington” short stories in The New Yorker, was created to provide pure, unadulterated nostalgia for a simpler, sweeter time. Seven decades later, Meet Me in St. Louis is still an endearing entertainment, and one of the very few musicals that is truly about the American family.
In Mark S. Hoebee’s generally fine production, that family is headed by Broadway favorite Gregg Edelman (with a mustache), who gets only one chance to display his fantastic voice in the middle of Act Two. Still, he is extremely effective at playing the old-fashioned family monarch, who suddenly learns that he is not in control of his family at all and cannot merely disrupt their lives at his whim. Discretely watching young Tootie (Sophie Rubin) and Esther commiserate from behind the kitchen table, his character walks over to the piano, plays the melody of the title song, and suddenly decides to save the family by agreeing to stay in good old St. Louis.
As those loving and occasionally battling sisters, O’Malley displays a quirky spirit of excitement while performing such classic Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane songs as “The Boy Next Door,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Trolley Song.” Moreover, her Esther really is the kind of girl who would impetuously beat up her boyfriend after listening to a fib told by her little sister. Rubin recalls Susan Olsen’s Cindy Brady more than film originator Margaret O’Brien, and it is often difficult to understand what she is saying. Nonetheless, she certainly is cute — and even moving in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
The rest of the family is rounded out very nicely by JB Adams (Grandpa), Donna English (Mrs. Smith), Julia Osborne (Rose), Christian Delcroix (Lon), and Roni Caggiano (Agnus), as well as Patti Mariano as Katie, their spunky Irish maid. Also deserving of praise is the young ensemble, which athletically and enthusiastically performs Denis Jones’ creative choreography — which recalls the early work of Kathleen Marshall and Susan Stroman — in production numbers including “Skip to My Lou” and “Banjo.”
Maybe the sense of amazement emanating from the Smith family at the very end of the show, as they watch the first display of electric lights outdoors will be shared by audiences — who will tell their friends to “Meet Me in Millburn.”