Think back to the Golden Age of Technicolor MGM musicals and one of the first titles to pop into your head, particularly as the holiday season rolls around, will surely be 1944’s Meet Me In St. Louis. Even those who haven’t seen the entire film from opening credits to end titles have probably watched clips of Judy Garland singing “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door,” or “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” on YouTube or TV.  The MGM classic made the transition from the silver screen to Broadway in 1989, and it’s with that production that Music Theatre West opens its 2009-2010 season. With direction by Richard Israel and choreography by Lee Martino, it’s no surprise that Meet Me In St. Louis is an all-around winner, and the perfect pre-Thanksgiving treat for young and old alike.

Programming the Hugh Martin/Ralph Blane musical just before the L.A. regional theater premiere of Rent is a savvy move indeed for MTW, for as edgy as Rent remains even thirteen years after its Broadway opening, Meet Me In St. Louis is about as family-friendly as a musical can be.  The Sound Of Music seems positively dark in comparison.  The problems facing the Alonso Smith family in 1903 St. Louis get no more serious than whether oldest daughter Rose will receive a wedding proposal, middle daughter Esther will go to the Christmas Eve ball with the boy next door, or the family will pack up their bags and move to New York City, a fate most of the Smiths seem to feel would be worse than death.  There’s not a Nazi or drug addict in sight, and who’s complaining? Not I. Not with a score as tuneful as Martin and Blane’s (the duo added about a dozen new songs for the Broadway version) and performances as sparkling as those given by MTW’s couldn’t-be-better cast.

Wheeler’s book sticks closely to the film’s storyline (screenplay by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, based on Sally Benson’s New Yorker Magazine short stories). Esther (Cassie Silva) is in love with boy-next-door John Truitt (Jason Evans). Rose (Sarah Bermudez) hopes to marry away-at-college Warren Sheffield (Jeremy Bernard).  Youngest daughters Agnes (Alexa Freeman) and Tootie (Grace Kaufman) go trick-or-treating. Dad Alonzo (Norman Large) gets a job offer in New York.  John leaves his suit at the tailor’s the night of the dance.  The World’s Fair comes to St. Louis. That’s about it for plot, but oh the songs and the dances! And oh the cast that MTW Executive Director/Producer Paul Garman and Associate Artistic Director/Producer Steven Glaudini have come up with!

Silva is an plucky, endearing Esther, and makes the show’s Judy Garland song classics her very own. Large and Mary Gordon Murray make for a warm and wonderful Alonso and Anna Smith, Murray getting to sing the lovely “You’ll Hear A Bell,” a song added to the show after the Broadway opening.  Bermudez follows her star-making turn in last month’s Oklahoma! with another winning performance as Rose, and what a gorgeous soprano she has!  Handsome St. Louis-to-L.A. transplant Evans is a boy-next-door anyone could easily fall for, especially when he duets “You Are For Loving” with Silva in his gorgeous tenor, and Bernard too exhibits golden pipes as Warren. Song-and-dance man extraordinaire Robert Pieranunzi makes a welcome return to MTW as going-off-to-college older brother Lon. A terrific Cathy Newman gives audiences “a touch of the blarney” as feisty Irish maid Katie, and Kevin Cooney makes the most of his moments as Grandpa, singing a sprightly “Be Anything But A Girl” with the two youngest Smiths.   As Agnes, eleven-year-old Freeman has a great belt of a voice heralding a bright future in musical theater. Finally, if there’s a better child actress than seven-year-old Kaufman on our musical theater stages, I haven’t seen her.  Her performance as Tootie will win your heart—and break it.

Every bit as stellar as Meet Me In St. Louis’ principals are the members of the ensemble, who earn every cent of their pay checks by dazzling in musical number after musical number, with dance steps courtesy of once-again Ovation Award nominated Martino. Proving themselves Broadway-ready are Andrew Blake Ames, Seth Belliston, Jennifer Brasuell, Courtney Evans (Eve), Stephanie Burkett Gerson (Lucille Ballard), Zane Gerson, Karla Ruth Gilbert, Danny Moreno, Linda Neel, Allison Paraiso, Tiffany Renee Reid, Daniel Smith, John J. Todd, and Karl Warden.  Martino gives her dancers everything from waltzes to square dances to jigs to razzmatazzy high kicks to honest-to-goodness ice-stating, all of which they execute to precision perfection. Major production numbers include “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Skip to My Lou,” “The Banjo,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Ice,” each and every one a winner.

With the sensational MTW orchestra conducted by musical director Daniel Thomas and Julie Ferrin designing sound, this is a production that sounds as gorgeous as it looks.  And boy does it look gorgeous, with the terrific National Tour sets lit to perfection by Jean-Yves Tessier, Yolanda Rowell’s picture-perfect turn-of-the-last-century costumes, and Cliff Senior’s 1903 (as seen through 1944 eyes) wigs.

With his brilliantly-staged Big River still running, and last season’s Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins, Big The Musical, and Violet having made him StageSceneLA’s Director Of The Year (Musical & Comedy), Richard Israel is definitely the “Man Of The Moment” in L.A. musical theater. Meet Me In St. Louis makes it five Israel winners in a row, and anyone wanting to see just how world-class our L.A. musical theater scene is these days could do no better than to catch MTW’s season opener.  Meet Me In St. Louis is one appointment you won’t want to miss.

Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
October 31, 2009
                                                                                 Photos: Alysa Brennan

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