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Theatre in Review: Meet Me in St. Louis (Irish Repertory Theatre Online)

Shereen Ahmed. Photo: Courtesy of the Irish Rep

The Irish Rep has a number of packages for us to unwrap this holiday season and perhaps the nicest one is that they're not doing A Christmas Carol. (Dickens fans, take note: There are thousands of that particular classic streaming day and night between now and the end of the year.) Instead, it has revived its 2006 production of Meet Me in St. Louis, which, in this most peculiar of holiday seasons, has charm to spare.

Meet Me in St. Louis is based on a 1944 film that marked career high points for both star Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli. A sweet, nostalgia-tinged tale of a family crisis, wrapped in Technicolor bows, it was unhappily reworked and, having swelled to theme-park dimensions, was in 1989 deposited on the stage of the Gershwin Theatre. It was stuffed to the gills with ballets, ice-skating, streetcars, and marching bands; the pile of debris buried the story's warm appeal. Charlotte Moore, the Irish Rep's artistic director, was one of that production's rare highlights, cast in the role of the loving matriarch; in the role of adaptor, she has pared down Hugh Wheeler's book to more modest dimensions, highlighting the material's homier qualities.

Nothing much happens as we follow the Smith family of St. Louis in a series of minor comic incidents over the years 1903 - 04. (The film and stage musical are based on a collection of autobiographical sketches by Sally Benson, published in The New Yorker.) The main drama, such as it is, comes when Alonzo, the put-upon patriarch, announces that his law firm is transferring him to New York City -- news that is treated like coal for the family's Christmas stockings. The ripple effect of this decision is widespread and unwelcome: The multigenerational clan faces a breakup. The older daughters' nascent romances are threatened. Worst of all, the Smiths will miss out on being in St. Louis for its center-of-the-universe moment as host to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

I'll leave you in suspense about the outcome -- one or two of you may not know what happens -- while noting this version of Meet Me in St. Louis retains the charm of vintage hand-colored postcards. Especially beguiling are the songs, most of them by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin. Under Moore's direction, the ladies in the cast a collective spell. As Esther -- the Garland role -- Shereen Ahmed applies her peaches-and-cream soprano to "The Boy Next Door" while adding a lively lilt (consisting of exhilaration combined with expectation) to "The Trolley Song." As Rose, Esther's marriage-minded sister, Ali Ewoldt has fewer vocal opportunities, but it's fun to watch her chase her hesitant swain (Ian Holcomb) with such aplomb. Melissa Errico, looking barely older than her onstage daughters, presides over the family with her inimitable voice and impeccable phrasing, making a lovely thing out of "You'll Hear a Bell," a bit of motherly romantic advice laced with pleasant yearning for days of courting past. As the family's two younger daughters, a pair of take-no-prisoners pre-teens, Kylie Kuioka and Austyn Johnson add a welcome note of tart comedy; Kuioka in particular is little girlhood at its most blood-curdling, whether she is killing (and burying) her extensive collection of dolls or plotting a Halloween prank that nearly causes a major traffic incident.

The men's roles are rather less interesting, but Max Von Essen is an ideal boy next door; he and Ahmed seem genuinely entranced with each other and his vocals are, as usual, effortlessly soaring. Indeed, musical values are the primary attraction here, thanks to Josh Clayton's orchestrations and John Bell's expert handling of a small instrumental ensemble. If the result is less a musical play than an old-fashioned at-home musicale, that's all right by me.

Once again, the technical wizards at the Irish Rep have pulled together actors sheltering in various locations and made them appear to be occupying the same spaces (a series of charmingly drawn period interiors and exteriors by Charlie Corcoran). Astonishingly, they manage to pull off the passing scenery of "The Trolley Song." There is even a convincing kiss or two between actors who are miles apart. (The ball scene, with waltzing couples, shows the limits of what can be done, but that doesn't diminish what is achieved here.)

Nobody is ever going to mistake Meet Me in St. Louis for a great musical, but in this modestly scaled-for-the screen production populated by some bright talents, it brings a lovely fireside glow to these winter nights. After a bruising year, it's a balming two hours of melody and romance. And when the time comes for Ahmed to deliver that most melancholy of holiday songs, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," keep the Kleenex box nearby. You can access it at https://irishrep.org/show/irish-rep-online-2020/meet-me-in-st-louis/. -- David Barbour

(16 December 2020)

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