Director Linda Kerns, choreographer Heather Castillo, and a terrifically talented cast make the most of Cabrillo Music Theatre’s summer offering, a revival of the short-lived 1989 Broadway adaptation of the 1944 MGM movie musical Meet Me In St. Louis.  Though the material being brought to life doesn’t hold up nearly as well as our rose-colored memories of the Judy Garland classic would like it to, the resulting production has much to recommend in it.

 The weakest link is Hugh Wheeler’s book, one which I wouldn’t go quite so far as to dub “insipid” (as New York Times Theater Critic Frank Rich did in 1989), but nonetheless one whose storyline and tone make last year’s The Sound Of Music seem positively deep and dark by comparison.

Though I was considerably more willing simply to sit back and enjoy the ride at a previous CLO production a few years back, this time round I couldn’t help wishing for the relative depth of small-town ‘40s classics like Oklahoma! and Carousel, or the musical complexity of more recent period pieces like 2005’s Little Women, or the tongue-in-cheek delights of the family favorite Annie.

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). Middle daughter Esther Smith (Alyssa M. Simmons) is in love with boy-next-door John Truitt (Kyle Lowder). Eldest daughter Rose (Melissa Reinertson) hopes to marry away-at-college Warren Sheffield (Dane Biren). Youngest daughters Agnes (Antonia Vivino) and Tootie (Hayley Shukiar) go trick-or-treating. Dad Alonzo (Tom Schmid) gets a job offer in New York to the dismay of wife Anna (Christina Saffran Ashford), daughters, and son Lon (Brendan Yeates) alike. John leaves his suit at the tailor’s the night of the dance. The World’s Fair comes to St. Louis. And that’s it.

 “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” are as memorable today as they were when written in 1944, particularly as sung by the amazing-voiced Simmons, in a terrific follow-up performance to her recent turn as Little Women’s Jo. “Meet Me In St. Louis, Louis,” “Skip To My Lou,” and “Under The Bamboo Tree” are fine enough as early 1900s standards go, and infectiously performed by company members. “Raving Beauty,” “A Touch Of The Irish,” and “You Are For Loving,” added for Broadway in 1989, are considerably less memorable, though “You’ll Hear A Bell” (added even later) makes for a lovely vocal showcase for Ashford’s exquisite soprano. Sadly, several of the Broadway production’s best songs, including the delightful “Be Anything But A Girl” and “Ghosties and Ghoulies and Things That Go Bump In The Night” (and its accompanying Halloween Ballet) have been cut from the musical’s licensed version, to the production’s detriment.

 Fortunately, director Kerns has approached Meet Me In St. Louis with affectionate attention to detail, aided and abetted by a lovely and charming Ashford, an entertainingly gruff Schmid, and a very winning (and handsome) Lowder in addition to the aforementioned Simmons. Reinertson and Bowers provide topnotch support, Shukiar and Vivino are cute and precocious, Leigh is at her feisty “Touch Of The Irish” best, and Dane Biren makes for an amusingly stuffy Warren Sheffield. Finally, there’s recent Australia-to-Southern California transplant Yeates, exhibiting real triple-threat chops in “The Banjo,” the production’s most exciting dance number, and that’s saying something, with choreographer Castillo doing her best, most challenging, and most satisfying work yet.

It helps that Castillo is working with as talented as dance ensemble as I’ve seen in a Cabrillo Music Theatre production since 2007’s Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and though a few of the boys come across too young for adult dance numbers, particularly opposite older partners, there’s not a weak link in the bunch, all of whom execute standout precision moves in musical number after musical number, including the Irish jiggy “Skip To My Lou,” the Agnes de Mille-flavored “The Trolley Song,” and the showstopping “The Banjo.”

 The crackerjack ensemble is made up of Orlando Agawin, Emily Albrecht, Erika Bandy, Phillip Brandon, Michael Brown, Savannah Brown (Lucille Ballard), Michael Byrne (Peewee Drummond), Rachel Crissman (Eve), Hogan Fulton, Stephanie Hayslip, Ken Johnson (Postman), Jenna Keiper, Kurt Kemper (Clinton Badger), Alex Mendoza (Sydney Purvis), Chase O’Donnell, Kate Ponzio, Tracy Ray Reynolds, Kelly Roberts, Danielle Rosario, Linda Smith, and assistant to the choreographer/dance captainTimothy Stokel. The “Kid’s Ensemble” are Rachel Albrecht, Lexie Colins, Natalie Esposito, Hayley Gilchrist, Griffin Hamilton, and Logan Price.

Musical director Lloyd Cooper conducts the marvelous sixteen-piece Cabrillo Music Theatre Orchestra. Sets (from the National Tour) and props are provided by Musical Theatre West and lush, colorful period costumes by Peggy Kellner are provided by Music Theatre Of Wichita and supervised by Christine Gibson. Christina L. Munich has designed the production’s vivid lighting design and Jonathan Burke its sound design, which unfortunately suffered from a faulty mike on Opening Night. Hair and makeup design by Kim Robinson get top marks, despite a too over-the-top wig for Irish maid Katie.

Char Brister is crew captain, Tim Schroepfer technical director, Allie Roy production stage manager, and Megan Laughlin assistant stage manager.

Although Meet Me In St. Louis (The Musical) may not be the enduring classic that many might wish it to be, at Cabrillo Music Theatre, performances and dance numbers are quite definitely worth cheering about.

Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.

–Steven Stanley
July 20, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger

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