As a proud New Yorker (born and raised on Long Island), I cannot imagine anyone preferring St. Louis to New York. New York has Broadway, museums, Carnegie Hall, Coney Island and Yankee Stadium. The best St. Louis has to offer is a giant McDonald’s sign.
The show started off as a 1944 film starring Judy Garland as Esther Smith. It was written by Irving Brecher and Fred Finklehoffe from a series of short stories by Sally Benson. It includes some now-standard songs, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, such as “The Boy Next Door” “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” It was adapted for the Broadway stage in 1989.
The plot’s pretty thin: It’s the dawn of the 20th century and St. Louis is getting ready for the 1904 World’s Fair. Esther Smith (wonderfully played by Colleen McDonald) is in love with her neighbor, John Truitt (played by the very talented Jacob Kinderman). Meanwhile older sister Rose (played by Brooke Calderone, also terrific) is hoping for a proposal from Warren (Jason Diaz).
Meanwhile, brother Lon Smith (Brent Tuccillo) is getting ready to go to Princeton, and younger sisters Tootie and Agnes (Shealyn Davis and Makenna Katz) have some kid-like adventures, and get into some mild trouble. The maid Katie (Charlotte Singh) cracks wise, dad Alonso (Fred Gropper) is grumpy and Anna (Maureen Hacket) is the loving mother.
It’s the performers who make this production worthwhile. Ms. McDonald is the standout. She sings “The Boy Next Day” with longing and she knocks it out of the park with “The Trolley Song.” It’s futile to compare anyone to Ms. Garland but Ms. McDonald sings with clarity, emotion and confidence. The way she holds notes is a marvel and she lets her voice do the work without shouting.
Ms. Calderone stands out during “A Raving Beauty” a duet between Rose and Warren. Mr. Kinderman does nice work as John Truitt, his baritone voice soars, especially on “You Are For Loving.”
And let’s not forget Mr. Tuccillo as brother Lon, the Princeton lad. He’s charming and brings the house down the with rousing tune called “The Banjo,” about a college dance craze he shows the good people of St. Louis. Great fun.
Mr. Gropper gets laughs playing the grumpy dad (“I hope they meet me at the fair and leave me alone”) and Ms. Hackett sings a lovely “You’ll Hear a Bell.” And youngsters Shealyn and Makenna deserve praise as well. Playing Tootie, Shealyn opens the show by herself with the opening of the title song. It’s a big job, and she’s up to it.
The production itself isn’t perfect: one moment when a set piece bumped into a wall was Guffman-like, and while “The Trolley Song” is terrific, I’m not sure what everyone was doing on that Trolley. And the show itself could use some cutting. This is fluffy stuff to run more than two and a half hours.
But the music makes it worthwhile. The 26-piece orchestra plays superbly and the singers, for the most part, are quite good. Throw in some laughs and a few love stories, and you’ve got a little bit of Christmas in July.
Meet Me in St. Louis continues at Kelsey Theatre on the campus of Mercer County Community College, 12 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, through July 27. For tickets and information, go to www.kelseyatmccc.org or call 609-570-3333.