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Meet Me In St. Louis
Songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, Book by Hugh Wheeler
Revised Book by Gordon Greenberg, Additional Orchestrations by John McDaniel
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden
The Muny
August 4, 2018

Emily Walton (center) and Cast
Photo: The Muny

In the closing show of the Muny’s 100th season, two famous slogans coincide. Now “Meet me at the Muny” meets “Meet Me In St. Louis“, as the stage version of the classic film has been brought to the Muny again with a revised book and a nostalgic tone, as well as a hopeful message. It’s a classic, but it’s also new, looking back on a celebrated era in the city’s past but also encouraging a spirit of family, connection, and optimism.

This show has been done several times at the Muny over the years. Now, it’s back with a revised book by Gordon Greenberg and some additional songs, including one that was written for the original film but cut from the final version, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me”. Based on Sally Benson’s stories of her family’s life in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th Century, the focus here is on the Smith family, and especially the character played by Judy Garland in the film, second daughter Esther (Emily Walton), who pines after the “Boy Next Door”, John Truitt (Dan DeLuca), before she even meets him. They eventually do meet, adding to the romantic entanglements of the rest of the Smith family, including oldest sister Rose (Liana Hunt) whose boyfriend Warren Sheffield (Michael Burrell) transfers to Washington University to be closer to Rose, and brother Lon (Jonathan Burke), who brings the trendy New Yorker Lucille Ballard (Madison Johnson) home to meet his family. The rest of the family’s drama also involves New York, as father Alonzo Smith (Stephen R. Buntrock) informs his wife Anna (Erin Dilly) that his lawfirm has given him a promotion and a job in the New York office. The plans are overheard by the family’s Irish-American maid Katie (Kathy Fitzgerald), and the three try to delay telling the rest of the family for as long as possible, because only Alonzo seems happy about the idea and they know their family, including younger daughters Agnes (Elle Wesley) and Tootie (Elena Adams) and Anna’s father, retired physician Grandpa Prophater (Ken Page), won’t take the news well. The story is something of a love letter to St. Louis in that era, with memorable characters and some iconic songs, including “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in addition to some classics from the time, such as the iconic title tune that’s sung by the family here as they and the whole city anticipate the 1904 World’s Fair. It’s a relatively light show, and it’s a lot of fun, showcasing the various characters at different times and, with this new version, throwing in some subtle nods to the Muny, such as when Esther and John have lunch in Forest Park as the fairgrounds are constructed and talk about the future, pointing out the young oak trees around them and imagining them growing into tall shade trees, like the ones that now surround the very stage on which they are having this conversation. It’s a fun little moment in the show, which is full of funny, nostalgic and poignant moments leading up to a rather spectacular finale.

The plot can get a little convoluted at times, but the characters and the various set pieces featuring the changing seasons in St. Louis are the highlight here. It’s not a deep show, but it’s fun, and the classic songs are given excellent treatment here, along with the requisite “Muny Magic”, as with the real trolley onstage for “The Trolley Song”, the grand set designed by Michael Schweikardt, the colorful costumes by Tristan Raines, and the spectacular production values, including lighting by Rob Denton, sound by John Shivers and David Patridge, and excellent video design by Matthew Young, along with the glorious Muny orchestra led by music director Charlie Alterman. This is a big, bright, warm and funny family show, staged with obvious love for the city and park in which it is set and in which it is being staged.

The cast is first-rate, as well, with Walton as an amiable Esther, doing justice to the classic songs and lending credibility to Esther’s crush on next-door-neighbor John, who is played with sweetly awkward charm by DeLuca. They make a believable couple, as do real-life married couple Dilly and Buntrock as the Smith parents. The whole Smith family is surperbly cast, with standout performances especially from Wesley and Adams as the mischievous younger daughters, Agnes and Tootie. Muny stalwart Page is also excellent as the kind Grandpa, Fitzgerald is pleasantly spunky as Katie, and the large Muny ensemble lends strong support, with lots of dynamic energy and enthusiasm in the big production numbers. It’s a big, entertaining show and fills out the huge Muny stage with style and spirit.

When my family first moved to St. Louis, it was 2004, 100 years after the famous fair, and as I remember, the city celebrated that centennial with various activities throughout the year to commemorate the fair. One of those events was the first show of the Muny season that year–Meet Me In St. Louis. It was also the first show I ever saw at the Muny. We sat in the free seats, and I remember enjoying the show. Seeing this new, spectacular production to close out the Muny’s 100th season reminds me of how much has changed since then, not just for me but for the Muny and for the city as a whole. It also reminds me of the timelessness of this show, and of the Muny itself. This production celebrates the city and the milestones in families’ lives, as well as an iconic moment in history, with a clarity and charm that is timeless and transcendant. It’s a magnificent way to close out a historic season.

Cast of Meet Me In St. Louis
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Meet Me in St. Louis in Forest Park until August 12, 2018.

 

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Holiday Inn
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin, Book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
July 6, 2015

Noah Racey, Patti Murin, Colin Donnell Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Noah Racey, Patti Murin, Colin Donnell
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny has a storied history in St. Louis over its almost 100 year life span, and I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to see a Muny show in the 1940s and 1950s. That was the heyday of the big, classic spectacle-type musicals, as well as Hollywood musicals such as Holiday Inn and White Christmas. Well, now it looks like I’ve had my chance, with the Muny’s latest production of the newly adapted stage version of Holiday Inn. Revised and expanded from the original film version, this production takes most of its original score, adds more songs from famed composer Irving Berlin, and blends them together into a classy, bold and tuneful tribute to Hollywood musicals and the song-and-dance shows of yesteryear, with a sense of energy and spirit that makes the show seem fresh and approachable without seeming dated.

Although I’ve seen a lot of classic Hollywood musical films, I had actually never managed to see the original Holiday Inn film. That doesn’t matter at all, though, in terms of being able to enjoy this festive, affectionate treat of a show.  Apparently the story has been modified from the film’s plot, but the general idea remains. It tells the story of two long-time friends and performing partners–singer/songwriter Jim Hardy (Colin Donnell) and dancer Ted Hanover (Noah Racey), who have just performed their last show at a New York club with their partner Lila Dixon (Holly Ann Butler), who is also Jim’s girlfriend. While Jim wants to retire to a historic farm he just purchased in Connecticut, Ted and Lila want to take an offer to perform at another club in Chicago, and so they decide to split up, with Lila promising to join Jim after she’s finished the gig. Eventually, things get complicated as Jim moves to the farm and meets Linda Mason (Patti Murin), a schoolteacher and former singer/dancer whose family used to own the farm. As the months go by, Jim and Linda grow closer and the bills pile up, prompting the farm’s handywoman Louise (Nancy Opel) to suggest he use the farm as a hotel and show venue. With Linda and some old friends from New York joining in, “Holiday Inn” is born. Meanwhile, Ted arrives fresh from a run of successful performances in Chicago and Las Vegas and looking for a new dance partner.  What will happen when he meets Linda? What will Jim do when his friend returns to tempt Linda with the prospect of showbiz success? And what about Lila?

It’s a fairly predictable plot, but none of that really matters because it’s all just so entertaining, with the right balance of comedy, drama, spectacle and romance, and all those wonderful production numbers expertly performed by the leads and the Muny’s fantastic ensemble. There are many classic Berlin songs here, from iconic ballads like “White Christmas” and “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” to elaborately staged extravaganzas like “Easter Parade” and the inventive and energetic “Shaking the Blues Away”. Classic dance songs like “Cheek to Cheek” are here as well, and all of them are presented with the requisite style and charm. Dance-wise, there’s lots of tapping, as well as slower styles and lots of strong ensemble support.

The cast couldn’t be better, from the leads to the supporting roles and the cohesive ensemble. The show has even managed to find a Fred Astaire look-alike and dance-alike in the charming, debonair Racey, who isn’t imitating Astaire but manages to evoke the famed hoofer’s spirit while adding his own flair to the role. Real-life married couple Donnell and Murin display electric chemistry as Jim and Linda, and both are fantastic singers able to sing these timeless classics in the right style and with a great deal of warmth. Opel is a hoot as the jill-of-all-trades Louise, providing excellent comic support and  superbly leading one of the show’s best numbers, “Shaking the Blues Away”. Butler gives a fun performance as the showbiz-obsessed Lila, and young Phoenix Lawson is memorable as one of Linda’s students, the budding entrepreneur  Charlie. It’s an extremely strong cast with no weak links, and the Muny ensemble is put to use in ideal fashion.

Visually, the show is a fitting tribute to both Hollywood movie musicals and the old-style stage spectacles the Muny has been famous for. With a versatile cloud backdrop and a revolving set that serves as the inn as well as the barn/stage, Timothy R. Mackabee’s set is suitably impressive. And the costumes, by Alejo Vietti, are simply stunning, with colorful styles suited to the 1040s period setting as well as the various holiday themed numbers–from elaborate Easter bonnets to glamorous New Year’s attire to patriotic styles for the 4th of July, and more.

This show is, simply put, a whole lot of fun. It’s charming, colorful, old-fashioned in the best sense of the word and thoroughly entertaining. It’s a fitting show for showing off the best of the Muny’s current regime while celebrating the styles and musical theatre traditions of the past. Holiday Inn at the Muny is well worth checking into.

Holiday Inn ensemble Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Holiday Inn ensemble
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

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