By Lynn Venhaus
By wrapping up its Centennial Season with a sweet nostalgic slice of Americana, the Muny has tugged at our hearts and reminded us to treasure our traditions.
This “Meet Me in St. Louis” makeover is a richly textured tapestry significant to St. Louis – one that you can see and feel. With a freshly revised book and new orchestrations, the Muny has connected the ordinary Smith Family’s quaint story to emotionally resonate through the ties that bind us.
A tight-knit cast and tip-top crew wore their hearts on their sleeves opening night, offering a gift to the region that spends its summers in the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor theater. You could sense the love for our town onstage, backstage and in the audience.
The Smiths’ upper-middle class life at 5135 in Kensington Avenue was not different than countless others, but through their typical goings-on, they faced change, and that impending family transition from their comfortable routine to the uncertainty of a big metropolis is what drives their 1903-1904 story through seasons along the Mississippi River.
Sally Benson’s memoirs, “The Kensington Stories.” eventually became the beloved classic movie musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Even with its MGM-Hollywood pedigree, that unique turn-of-the-century site-specific history makes it ours alone – not Kansas City, Chicago or Indianapolis.
That civic pride resulted in the Muny presenting stage versions in 1960, 1965 and 1977 – before Broadway adapted it in 1989, and a variation has been staged four more times, including a dull one its last time in 2009.
The stage adaptation wasn’t special enough, and not even close in comparison to the movie. When the film opened in 1944, it became the studio’s biggest hit next to “Gone with the Wind” and nominated for four Oscars, including Best Song (“The Trolley Song”). Margaret O’Brien won a Juvenile Academy Award as Tootie. The film is now preserved in the National Film Registry (Library of Congress) and 10th on American Film Institute’s Greatest Movie Musicals in History list.
It’s closing line, “Right here in St. Louis,” became the Muny’s tagline for their 100th anniversary, and the show’s inclusion inevitable.
But this production has some surprises in store. To make this one memorable, Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson called on Gordon Greenberg to revamp the book by Hugh Wheeler. Greenberg is a veteran Muny director whose writing work includes the “Holiday Inn” Broadway adaptation.
He has inserted many local references to heighten the hometown feel. He had us right away when Grandpa talks about the St. Louis Cardinals beating the Chicago Cubs. Other mentions of neighborhoods and long-distance phone calls to Clayton were big crowd-pleasers.
No matter how corny you think the romantic entanglements are, the Smith kids’ excitement about seeing their hometown prepare to become the center of the universe is contagious.
The simple framework of children growing up is secondary to the time and place, as our forefathers are honored for their vision that included the biggest World’s Fair yet, and the first Summer Olympics in the U.S. And we continue to enjoy the fruits of those labors.
The world was watching when the Louisiana Purchase Exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. expansion under Thomas Jefferson. More than 60 countries and 43 states participated from April 30 to Dec. 1 in Forest Park and nearby locations. So many contributions of long-lasting impact came from those seven months in 1904, and the work preceding it.
That’s what director Marcia Milgrom Dodge brings out as the characters express love for the city and family, friends and neighbors during daily routines and holiday rituals.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (real-life married couple Stephen R. Buntrock and Erin Dilly) have five children: Rose, Esther, Alonzo Jr. “Lon,” Agnes and Tootie (Liana Hunt, Emily Walton, Jonathan Burke, Elle Wesley and Elena Adams, all in Muny debuts). Anna Smith’s father, retired doctor Grandpa Prophater (local legend Ken Page) lives with them. Alonzo Sr. is a lawyer and they live comfortably enough to afford a housekeeper, Katie (Kathy Fitzgerald).
This cast injected individual pizzazz into a show that’s still boxed in by the period’s social mores. Let’s face it, the schmaltz factor is high, and the two oldest girls’ boy troubles are trivial.
There is the potential to view the characters as spoiled in the way the older daughters maneuver the guys and bratty Tootie causes mayhem while they all whine about moving to New York City, but if they didn’t gripe, we wouldn’t have any dramatic conflict, would we? And the performers are winsome.
Rose’s intended fellow, the earnest Warren Sheffield, is well-played by Michael Burrell, and Dan DeLuca, as the proverbial boy-next-door John Truitt, matches Emily Walton’s adventurous zest as Esther.
Jonathan Burke is an impressive Lon Jr., getting ready for Princeton and dating the worldly Lucille Ballard (St. Louis regular Madison Johnson, looking swell in a Gibson hairstyle). He is a marvel of movement in the dance number, “The Banjo,” innovatively staged by choreographer Josh Walden. Jeff Jordan is a good sport as a gangly uncoordinated dance partner, Pee Wee Drummond.
Music Director Charlie Alterman glides through old standards and the stand-out numbers written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane – “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which Walton beautifully delivers.
An earlier song list was trimmed to thankfully cut the bloat, and John McDaniel’s new orchestrations provide some zing. McDaniel, a St. Louis native, is a Grammy and Emmy-winning composer, conductor, pianist and producer. He was the band leader on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show from 1996 to 2002 and has returned to conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra five times and worked on “Pirates!” during the Muny’s 2012 season.
They included a dandy song Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote but cut from the movie, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me.”
Supporting player Ben Nordstrom’s spotlight moment was delightful, as he sang “Under the Anheuser Bush” as the Christmas Ball band singer.
(Fun fact: That is a popular beer garden song commissioned by the brewery in 1903, and an instrumental version was used in the 1944 movie).
The vibrant vintage look sharpened the focus, with outstanding work by scenic designer Michael Schweikardt and video designer Matthew Young, who highlighted the bygone era with beautiful vistas.
Costume designer Tristan Raines and wig designer Leah J. Loukas immersed the players in exquisite detail. The youth ensemble’s Halloween costumes provided merriment as they scampered through the crowd.
Lighting designer Rob Denton spectacularly illuminated the World’s Fair, which elicited audible appreciation. Sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge captured the old-timey feel.
In two extraordinary moments, “Meet Me in St. Louis” crystallized the past, present and future of our crown jewels — Forest Park and The Muny, all in the shadow of our treasured landmarks.
The “Skinker’s Swamp” picnic scene, where video projection showed The Palace of Fine Art (now the St. Louis Art Museum) under construction, along with the Ferris Wheel, in a muddy field. Awestruck Esther and John rode that famous trolley to his baseball practice first.
The grand finale was breathtaking – as the anticipation of the World’s Fair built, to reveal the Smith Family standing on a bridge overlooking the Grand Basin, with thousands of festive lights. It was a vivid tableau that continued in a fireworks-festooned curtain call.
Sometimes, we see magic happen under the stars in Forest Park, just as our ancestors did in the 20th century. Hope about the future has been a running theme in all seven shows this season, and “Meet Me in St. Louis” became the cherry on top.
After the fireworks light up the sky for the last time Aug. 12, we move onto the second century.
Look around the park now – majestic remnants mark our heritage. It’s a stunning sight, recalling happy golden days of yore, as is the Muny’s love letter to the community we cherish.
This unabashedly sentimental production conjured up many personal memories and feelings about what Forest Park, the Muny and St. Louis mean to me. I don’t think I was alone in this regard, judging the audience’s reaction
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is presented from Aug. 4 to Aug. 12 nightly at 8:15 p.m. at The Muny in Forest Park. For more information or for tickets, visit www.muny.org.
Photos by Phillip Hamer