Story: It’s summer 1903 and St. Louis is abuzz with anticipation for the 1904 Universal Exposition, otherwise known as the World’s Fair, which is to be celebrated in the Gateway City during the centennial year of the Louisiana Purchase.
The Smith family, including father Alonzo, mother Anna, son Lon Jr., daughters Rose, Esther, Agnes and Tootie, Grandpa Prophater and Katie the maid, all are looking forward to the glorious festivities scheduled in the year ahead.
There also is romance in the air as eldest daughter Rose is being courted by college man Warren Sheffield, while Esther has her eyes on the new boy next door, John Truitt. Sure enough, love begins to bloom for both Rose and Esther before Mr. Smith comes home one day with some “exciting” news to tell his wife: He’s been asked by his law firm to run its New York City office, a big promotion.
He’s delighted, but the news doesn’t set well with Mrs. Smith nor with Katie, who are instructed to keep it a secret until closer to Christmas. Naturally, the cat gets out of the bag long before that, which leads to some major unhappiness on behalf of all of the Smith daughters, who don’t want to leave St. Louis on the eve of the World’s Fair or, in the case of Rose and Esther, their beaus.
Mr. Smith puts his foot down about the subject, even though Katie and Grandpa Prophater inform him they won’t be making the move. The rest of the family, although resigned to the situation, continues to be unhappy about their impending departure.
Is Mr. Smith’s promotion really that important? Is it worth the extra pay to endure the aggravation the new location will cause his family? And will any of them ever get to see the World’s Fair? Stay tuned.
Highlights: To cap off its centennial season, The Muny presents a new version of the beloved family musical that truly is centered on when St. Louis was at the apex of its history and importance in the United States. Strong performances permeate the season finale at The Muny under the loving direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge.
Other Info: Actually, it can be a bit depressing seeing how St. Louis has gone down in stature compared to when it once was so vital and important in the eyes of the nation, when it was the fourth largest city in the country (probably after New York City, Philadelphia and Boston) just after the turn of the 20th century.
The Muny, however, dresses up this eighth visit of Meet Me in St. Louis with a magnificent set designed by Michael Schweikardt, from the elegant upper-middle- class home of the Smiths at “5135 Kensington” to the appearance of an actual trolley on stage to an eye-popping background of the “Palace of Electricity” at the World’s Fair for the finale.
That impressive scenic design is enhanced with Rob Denton’s imaginative and evocative lighting and a splendid video design furnished by Matthew Young, impressively showing the construction site in Forest Park pre-World’s Fair.
The costumes created by Tristan Raines speak to the elegance of the period and the relative wealth of the Smith family, complemented with the wig design of Leah J. Loukas. Add the sophisticated and charming choreography contributed by Josh Walden and you have the makings for an upscale musical.
As Muny artistic director and executive producer Mike Isaacson noted in The Muny’s news release, Broadway director and writer Gordon Greenberg revised the book for this special presentation of Meet Me in St. Louis, which includes several songs new to the stage adaptation of the original 1944 MGM movie musical starring Judy Garland.
“How fitting for our 100th season,” said Isaacson, “we create a new edition that we hope will be more thrilling or satisfying than any before, and will become the definitive stage version.”
In his program notes, Isaacson observes that The Muny produced the world premiere stage adaptation of the movie in 1960 and that since then Meet Me in St. Louis “has gone through many editions and versions before the world premiere of this latest version on The Muny stage.”
In addition to new script material by Greenberg there also are fresh orchestrations by St. Louisan John McDaniel, most notable on some delightful performances of Scott Joplin rags, another tip to the St. Louis setting. Under Charlie Alterman’s musical direction, The Muny orchestra delivers an invigorating reading of the score.
Emily Walton and Liana Hunt make inspired debuts on The Muny stage as sisters Esther and Rose, respectively, and each showcases a fine singing voice. Dan DeLuca displays a well-matched chemistry with Walton as her boy-next-door love, John Truitt. There also are charming Muny debuts by Elle Wesley as Agnes and Elena Adams as Tootie.
Real-life husband and wife Stephen R. Buntrock and Muny favorite Erin Dilly capably portray Alonzo and Anna Smith, while audience-pleaser Ken Page brings his booming voice and presence to the fore as kindly Grandpa Prophater. Jonathan Burke is a charming Lon Jr. while Kathy Fitzgerald plays her Irish maid role Katie to the max and then some.
Michael Burrell does well as Rose’s boyfriend Warren, Madison Johnson adds intrigue as Lon's forward girlfriend Lucille Ballard, Jeff Jordan demonstrates the awkward moves of Pee Wee Drummond and veteran St. Louis performer Ben Nordstrom has a fine time as a trolley conductor and also as the Christmas Ball band singer who warbles Under the Anheuser Bush.
Meet Me in St. Louis scores high on the schmaltz meter, but it’s performed handsomely enough under Dodge’s skillful guidance and it does feature the songs of Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane and much of the original book by Hugh Wheeler. Hats off to The Muny as well for the spectacular finale to this show and to the season.
Musical: Meet Me in St. Louis
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through August 12
Tickets: Free to $100; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamer and Eric Woolsey