Holidays celebrate tradition, but paradoxically offer vivid new experiences as well. Riverside Center for the Performing Arts captures this tension wonderfully in its current production of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” a 1989 Broadway musical based on the popular 1944 MGM movie which starred Judy Garland.
…make us feel as if we are witnessing a live moment from the 1944 Technicolor film.
The show is set in 1903 in St. Louis, a town coming of age in an American nation which is also experiencing rapid growth. The city eagerly awaits the opening of the St. Louis World’s Fair, including the members of the large and financially well-off Smith family. Central to the story are two sisters, Esther and Rose, who are preoccupied with finding love, even as their brother heads off to college. Rose has a cat-and-mouse romance with the up-and-coming Warren Sheffield, while Esther is finding a wholesome love with “the boy next door,” new neighbor John Truitt. All of these happy plans are threatened, however, when the family patriarch suddenly announces his intention to move the family to New York. Suddenly the future may not be as secure as once thought.
The cast navigates magnificently between the exuberance of happy mid-western life and youthful romance, and occasional worries about an impending departure to an unfamiliar place. Ally Dods as Esther Smith serves as a guiding star. Her clear singing voice, accompanied by the rest of the “Smith Family Octet,” establishes the happiness of family at the outset; her desire for love is framed in her solo “The Boy Next Door,” and then, in “Over the Bannister;” the happiness of shared love is expressed in a duet with John Truitt, well-voiced by Jackson Hurt. Later in the show, her rendition of what has become a perennial holiday favorite, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” presents a contrasting mood in which uncertain future Christmas hope mingles with present Christmastime sadness. Indeed, the ebullient spirit of the rest of the show and the beautiful voice of singer/actress Dods make this lone Christmas song in the production stand out for its beauty and nostalgia. (Remember, we were still in the midst of WWII and the song became a favorite of the US troops).
The singular moment in the show is Esther and the Ensemble’s performance of “The Trolley Song.” The trolley is a large rolling prop, but the actors, musicians (conducted superbly by Carson Eubank), singing, and clang-clang-clang of the trolley bell (to lyrics replete with onomatopoeia!) wonderfully convey the feeling of motion and exuberance. For a brief moment, Ally Dods and the chorus make us feel as if we are witnessing a live moment from the 1944 Technicolor film.
Many dances recall those which would have been in living memory when the film was made, including “Skip to My Lou” and “A Touch of the Irish,” enhanced by the acting and singing of Andrea Kahane, the Irish maid. Her character Katie comes in for fine comic turns, adding to the light-heartedness of the show. One dance number, called “The Banjo,” is brilliantly danced by the Ensemble and evokes later styles, such as the 1920s Charleston, the 1930s cinematic top-hat-white-tie-and-tails dancing of Fred Astaire, and the Broadway chorus line. There is a saying that nostalgia is not what it used to be, and perhaps the Broadway and Hollywood musical entertainment of the thirties and forties is seen and romanticized in our era in the same way that turn-of-the-century musical numbers and dances were experienced by the original viewers of the 1940s film.
The costumes, lighting, and set design also deserve special mention. Kyna Chilcot’s costumes are stunning. They strike a brilliant balance between mid-western wholesomeness and the stylized Edwardian glamour of the turn-of-the-century Gibson Girl. These are perfectly complemented by Weston Corey’s lighting design, which gives a warm introduction to the world of the play using a stylized presentation of costumed turn-of-the-century folk going about their business as seen through a silhouette screen. In a later part of the production, lights are used to evoke the wonders of the St. Louis World’s Fair in the distance. The entire show is under the masterful direction of Patrick A’Hearn, with wonderful choreography by Stephanie Wood.
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with one 20-minute intermission.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” runs through December 31, 2021 at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, 95 Riverside Pkwy, Fredericksburg, VA 22406. For more information and tickets, you can call (540) 370-4300 or go to their website. There is dinner beforehand. A special New Year’s Eve gala performance on December 31 will also include the final performance of the show and dinner, plus post-performance dancing, party favors, and a champagne toast at midnight.