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Crowns
by Regina Taylor
Adadpted from the Book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Mayberry
Directed by Linda Kennedy
The Black Rep
September 15, 2018

Cast of Crowns
Photo by Dunsi Dai
The Black Rep

The first thing that catches my notice in the Black Rep’s production of Crowns by Regina Taylor is a giant hat on the stage. That’s fitting, because hats are front and center in this musical collection of stories, a celebration of hats in African American culture, and particularly among black women. It’s a fascinating subject, showcasing some exceptional talent and the superb voices of its cast while highlighting some compelling stories of several generations of women and men in the American South.

There is a connecting story here, but it’s more of a loose framework that provides a means of exploring the show’s theme. The framing device involves Yolanda, a Brooklyn teenager whose brother is killed in a shooting. Taking his red baseball cap with her to remember him, Yolanda is sent down South to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Anita Jackson). Yolanda’s story is revisited several times throughout the show, serving as the introduction to various themes focusing on church services, including regular Sunday service, as well as weddings, funerals, and baptisms. The rest of the characters use these segments to tell their own stories, centering on hats and what they mean in various contexts, from African traditions to church culture, to family relationships, the Civil Rights Movement, and more. All of these stories are punctuated by songs, mostly gospel songs and hymns, showcasing the superb voices of the always excellent Jackson and the rest of the cast. It’s an occasion for thought, reflection, remembrance for those familiar with the cultural traditions portrayed here, and learning for those who aren’t.

The setting is established well, with that giant hat as the centerpiece of Dunsi Dai’s memorable scenic design, framed by stained glass windows. There’s also excellent use of lighting, designed by Joe Clapper, to set the mood throughout the production. The costume design is also particularly strong, with a variety of detailed outfits of various periods, and of course a succession of hats of many shapes and sizes, from simple to more ornate. The staging is dynamic and full of movement, as well, with Kirven Douthit-Bird’s choreography utilizing the stage setup well, as the ensemble sings and dances around the giant hat that serves as both a centerpiece and a pedestal.

The music is also a star here, with excellent songs and singing from the whole cast, and particularly Jackson, whose stage presence and vocal power are obvious, as also Amber Rose as Velma, whose solo on ‘HIs Eye is On the Sparrow” is a highlight of the production. White as Yolanda is also excellent, both vocally and in terms of acting, conveying her character’s journey well. The whole ensemble is strong, as well. In addition to Jackson, Rose, and White, Maureen L. (Hughes) Williams as Wanda, Eleanor Humphrey as Jeanette, and Myke Andrews in various male roles (including the pastor of the church) give excellent perfornances, relating their stories and singing their songs with energy and feeling.

This is a celebration of hats and culture, but also of music. It’s an outstanding showcase for great voices and fascinating stories, with humor, drama, and a strong sense of community, tradition, and shared experience. Crowns is a great start to a new season from the Black Rep.

Cast of Crowns
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Crowns at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 23, 2018

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Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 12, 2018

Blake Price, Sarah Ellis, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

Oklahoma! is a classic musical. In fact, it’s often thought of as the one that really made “musical theatre” a thing, at least in its modern sense. It’s 75 years old this year, and to celebrate its anniversary, many theatre companies across the country are producing the show. Here in St. Louis, it’s on at STAGES to close out their 2018 season, and the production is all that could be hoped for in a staging of this show. It’s a tradititional staging, for the most part, but being on a smaller scale than most productions of this show I’ve seen, it brings an immediacy and clarity to the relationships that is refreshing, and the casting is about as ideal as I could imagine, especially in the two lead roles.

The story is well-known to essentially anyone who knows the history of musical theatre. Set in the Oklahoma territory at the turn of the 20th Century, it follows a collection of characters and their lives and loves as the world is in the midst of an era of change, both technological and social. The cowboy Curly (Blake Price) is sweet on Laurey (Sarah Ellis), and she’s sweet on him, but they’re both awkward about admitting that. Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller (Zoe Vonder Haar), also has another admirer–mysterious, somewhat menacing farmhand Jud Fry (David Sajewich), but Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to a town social event to spite Curly, even though she soon regrets her decision. Meanwhile, Laurey’s romantically adventurous friend Ado Annie (Lucy Moon) has her own dilemma–having to choose between her cowboy sweetheart Will Parker (Con O’Shea Creal), who wants to marry Annie, and traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano), who is being pressured by Annie’s father (John Flack) to marry her. Some of the situations are awkwardly stereotypical by today’s standards, but for the most part it’s an entertaining representation of a bygone era both in terms of history and musical theatre, although the casting especially for Curly and Laurey has brought out a sense of timeless immediacy to the story that I haven’t seen as much before.

I’ve seen this show several times before, and I’ve never seen a Curly and Laurey with better chemistry than Price and and Ellis in this production. Every time they are one stage together, it’s electric, and every scene they have together is believable, crackling with emotional energy and attraction, bringing real magic to moments like “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and “People Will Say We’re In Love”. Price is an affable, charming Curly and Ellis is a somewhat more deadpan sarcastic Laurey than I’ve seen before, and her more reflective moments are credible as well. In fact, the dream ballet, with Ellis dancing herself opposite a “Dream Curly” (Nicolas De La Vega) puts the focus on Laurey even more so than other dream ballets I’ve seen. It’s an especially memorable, expertly danced moment. The always excellent Vonder Haar is impressive here as the devoted, spunky Aunt Ellerl, and Moon, O’Shea, and Curiano give strong comic performances in their roles as well. Sajewich is an appropriately broody and menacing Jud, and there’s also an excellent, energetic singing and dancing ensemble to back up the leads, with some impressive choreography by Dana Lewis on big, memorable production numbers like “Kansas City”, “The Farmer and the Cowman” and the title song.

Visually, this production is simply stunning, with a set by James Wolk that brings the Oklahoma prairies to vibrant life on stage, with some truly impressive dimensional scene painting and striking, stylish lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There are also colorful period costumes by Brad Musgrove that serve to celebrate both the era in which the show takes place and the 1940s costume design of the orginal Broadway production. It’s a great looking show, in keeping with classic and timeless style.

This is, simply stated, a fantastic Oklahoma! I especially like the particular focus on Curly and Laurey here, since other productions I’ve seen seem to have them overshadowed by the comic subplot. Even though the comic plots are well-done, the real stars here are Price and Ellis, and their love story makes more sense with these two than it ever has before, at least in productions I’ve seen. It’s a remarkable, vibrant production, appropriate for a 75th anniversary of an important classic musical. Go see it. It’s a whole lot more than just “OK”.

Con O’Shea-Creal, Lucy Moon
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProfPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Oklahoma! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 7, 2018.

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Evita
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Gustavo Zajac
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 7, 2018

Sean MacLaughlin, Michelle Aravena
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep has opened its newest season with a classic Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, Evita. This is a show that I had heard much of the music to, but had never actually seen. I’m glad the Rep’s production is the first one I’ve been able to see, since it’s stunning, with an especially strong cast and fabulous production values.

Evita is a well-known collaboraton from the celebrated team of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice, and after seeing this production, I think it’s Lloyd Webber’s strongest score. With memorable songs like “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”, “Buenos Aires” and “Another Suitcase In Another Hall”, this is a vibrant score with elements of tango, rock, and operatic styles, sung through and structured like an opera. It tells the story of the celebrated First Lady of Argentina in the late 1940s and early 50s, Eva Perón (Michelle Aravena), who starts out as Eva Duarte, rising from obscurity in rural Argentina, moving to the big city of Buenos Aires to become an actress, later meeting and marrying influential Colonel Juan Perón (Sean McLaughlin), and using her influence and popularity with the people to help him win the Presidency. The show, is narrated in a critical manner by Ché (Pepe Nufrio), who represents the common people of Argentina as Eva grows in power, influence and affluence and gains many admirers, who adore her as “Evita”. It’s a well-structured show with many strong musical moments, and a prime opportunity for a tour-de-force performance from its lead. Told essentially as flashback starting and ending with Eva’s funeral–accompanied in this production by actual footage projected on a screen above the stag–the story unfolds at a steady pace, examining Eva’s character and influence on her husband’s rise to power, as well as her influence on the general population of Argentina and her eventual inconic status.

I don’t know enough about the real Eva Perón to know exactly how historically accurate it is, but it’s a convincingly told story and a fascinating show, given an impressive staging at the Rep, with those glorious production values that the Rep is known for, including a fabulous unit set and projections by Luke Cantarella, dazzling period costumes by Alejo Vietti, and stunning lighting by John Lasiter. The staging is dynamic, using the turntable to excellent effect, whether it’s comic as in “Goodnight and Thank You” as Eva meets and moves on from a succession of lovers in Buenos Aires, or dramatic as in “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, poignantly sung by Perón’s rejected young Mistress (Shea Gomez) after Eva moves in. There’s also energetic choreography with a strong tango influence by Gustavo Zajac, and a first-rate band led by music director Charlie Alterman.

In terms of the cast, since this is Evita, it’s essential to cast that central character well, and the Rep has done that with the outstanding Aravena, who delivers a strong, powerful, and vulnerable performance as Eva. Vocally she is impressive despite a little bit of straining on the higher notes, and her dancing is particularly strong, as is her portrayal of Eva’s emotional journey from ambitious teenager to complicated national icon. She is well-matched by Nufrio, who displays excellent stage presence and a great voice as the challenging, confrontational Che. Her chemistry with MacLaughlin’s equally strong Perón is convincing, as well. There are also memorable performances from Gomez as Perón’s Mistress, and by the smooth-voiced Nicolas Dávila as singer Augustin Magaldi, who first brings Eva to Buenos Aires. There’s also a versatile and energetic ensemble ably supporting the leads in various roles, bringing spark and power to the production numbers such as the Act 1 closer, “A New Argentina”.

Evita is one of the more famous shows that I hadn’t actually seen before, and when I heard the Rep would be producing it I was looking forward to it. I’m happy to say the production has lived up to its promise. It’s a big, visually and vocally impressive show with a stellar cast that does justice to its celebrated score. It’s a great way to start a new season at the Rep.

Cast of Evita
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Evita until September 30, 2018

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King Charles III
by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 19, 2018

Cast of King Charles III
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

The Bard liked to write about kings. He has quite a few plays about them, in fact, covering monarchs from ancient times to those of his more recent history. Well, if you’ve ever wondered how the Bard might dramatize the current British Royal Family, Mike Bartlett has come up with his own answer to that question in King Charles III. Imagining a future scenario in which the current Prince of Wales ascends to the throne, Bartlett has written a script–in iambic pentameter–that addresses some contemporary controversies while exploring the effects of the monarchy on the people, as well as on the monarchs themselves and their families. St. Louis Shakespeare has now brought this thought-provoking play to the Ivory Theatre, in a well-cast production that takes its time to express Bartlett’s vision.

The story, set in the future, is a fictionalization that’s even more so now, the recent Royal Wedding and other factors making the story even more of an obvious imagination. It’s an “alternate universe” story, if you will, ostensibly imagining what may happen upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II and subsquent succession of Prince Charles to the throne. The Shakespearean styling becomes apparent in the use of various conventions and character archetypes that often occur in the Bards works, such as unlikely romances, ambitious throne-seekers, confused monarchs, and ghostly visitations. Here, the play begins just after the Queen’s funeral, as the new King Charles III (Colin Nichols) exercises his new royal authority in some surprising and unorthodox ways, to the confusion and shock of those around him, including members of his own family and the sitting Prime Minister Evans (Andra Harkins) and Opposition Leader Stevens (Patience Davis). Confronted with the dilemma of whether to sign a newly passed bill concerning regulation of the press, Charles hesitates, which threatens to cause a national crisis. Meanwhile, the aimless Prince Harry (Jeremy Goldmeier) is out clubbing with friends and meets the brash, anti-monarchy commoner Jess (Britteny Henry) and begins a relationship with her that he is warned will also cause a scandal. Also on hand is the popular Prince William (Michael Bouchard), who is reluctant to challenge his father’s authority but is encouraged to do so by his equally popular wife Kate (Lexie Baker), who has ambitions of her own. Also, both Charles and William recieve visions of the ghost of the late Princess Diana (Hannah Pauluhn), who seems to be telling both of them the same thing. This is an intriguing play full of interesting ideas and speculations, covering issues of royal responsibility, public perception of the monarchy, freedom of the press, and more. It’s a clever experiment, portraying some characters, such as Charles’s wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Donna Postel) generally according to popular perception while presenting others in direct contrast to general expectations–especially Charles, William, and Kate, but also Harry as well.

This production, directed by Donna Northcott, is steadily paced and sometimes could benefit from a little more energy. Still, the story is fascinating and the casting, for the most part, is good. Nichols plays Charles in a mostly sympathetic light, but can sometimes come across as vacillating and overly meek. The Princes, Bouchard and Goldmeier, give credible performances as the Princes who have to deal with different kinds of pressure, although Goldmeier makes Harry come across as being more interested in Jess for the “novelty” of dating an opinionated commoner rather than genuinely being interested in her as a person. I’m not sure if that’s the result of the script, the direction, or the performance, though. There are also strong performances from Harkins and Davis as the determined political rivals, by Henry as the confrontational Jess, who for her part does seem genuinely interested in Harry, and especially by Dustin Allison in a memorable performance as the king’s press advisor James Reiss, and by Baker as a scheming, Lady Macbeth-esque version of the Duchess of Cambridge. It’s these two –Reiss and Kate–who ultimately seem to be the ones really running the show, and their portrayers demonstrate that well. There’s also a strong, supportive ensemble playing various roles.

Visually, the show is simply and strikingly staged, with S. H.’s Boygen’s versatile set giving the suggestion a chess board with its tiled floor and movable set pieces. Jaime Zayas’s lighting provides a sometimes stark, sometimes ethereal atmosphere as needed. Michele Friedman Siler’s richly detailed costumes are also noteworthy, lending a sufficiently regal air to the proceedings.

Overall, King Charles III is a fascinating if sometimes bizarre speculation presenting several “what-if” scenarios in terms of history and theatrical form. Although sometimes the energy is lacking, the story and characters are interesting enough to hold one’s attention. I would imagine the actual royals might have some issues with it in terms of how they are portrayed, but for the most part, this production comes across as a worthwhile exercise in theatrical imagination.

Cast of King Charles III
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting King Charles III at the Ivory Theatre until August 26, 2018

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No Exit
by Jean Paul Sartre
Translated by Alyssa Ward
Directed by Bess Moynihan
SATE Ensemble Theatre
August 16 , 2018

Sarah Morris, Rachel Tibbetts, Shane Signorino Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

No Exit is one of those Important Plays that you study in English or drama class, but have you ever actually seen it? In speaking with SATE co-producer Ellie Schwetye before the show, we both commented on how many people we know (including myself at that point) had read or read about the play but hadn’t actually seen it. Well, if that’s you too, now you can see it! And not only is it being produced in St. Louis now, it’s by one of the boldest, most consistently excellent small theatre companies in town. Utilizing the rather intimate performance venue of the Chapel, SATE’s production is impeccably staged, ideally cast, and fascinating from start to finish.

The set-up and approach here are immersive, with audiences being greeted as they arrive by the blank-faced, deadpan delivery of Katy Keating’s Valet, who announces “Welcome to Hell”. The audience waits, seated around the perimeter of the Chapel on the edges of a precisely decorated room with limited furniture. As the play begins, the Valet eventually ushers in three newly deceased characters from different areas and different walks of life. The evasive Garcin (Shane Signorino) was a political activist, the confrontational Inès (Sarah Morris) was a postal worker, and the vain Estelle (Rachel Tibbetts) was a wealthy Parisian wife who insists she doesn’t belong in Hell. Over the course of the evening, the three manage to get under one another’s skin. Everyone’s in denial in one way or another, but soon the realities and brutalities of their lives are revealed as their interactions become the focus of the drama. The tension builds and the play’s conclusion produces its most famous line, which I won’t repeat here but once you hear it, you’ll probably know it. This is a classic representation of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy with sharply drawn characters and dynamic, thought-provoking diaologue veers from the dramatic to the darkly witty. It’s the kind of play people write papers about, and I’m sure there have been thousands over the years. Still, it’s a play, and it comes alive with a dynamic staging, which this production certainly is, directed by Bess Moynihan with a lucid energy that maximizes the drama.

There’s a great cast here, as well, from the unsettlingly serious Keating, a strong presence in the relatively small part of the Valet, to the contrasting characters of the three leads. Morris is all combative energy as the brutally honest, challenging Inès, with Signorino equally strong as the preoccupied, self-deluded Garcin. They are matched by Tibbetts in an impressive turn as the almost confronationally shallow, vain Estelle, who seeks her value in her desirability to men. The chemistry among all three is intense, driving the play so there is never a slow moment.

Also impressive is the complete look and atmosphere of this production. The 1940s style and character-specific suitability of the costumes by Marcy Ann Wiegert and the meticulous set design by director Moynihan make an ideal setting. There’s also impressive lighting, designed by Michael Sullivan, setting the creepy, ominous tone from the beginning. Ellie Schwetye’s sound design also adds to this tone.

This is such a precisely staged, superbly acted production, with the strength of the script shining through. Kudos also to translator Alyssa Ward, as the wit, drama, and intensity shine through the dialogue. It’s the first production of No Exit I’ve seen, but I find it difficult to imagine how this play could be done any better. It’s a milestone of 20th century drama, but here it’s made fresh and very much in the moment. Again, the excellence with which SATE has come to be known shines through. This is a show that needs to be seen.

Katy Keating, Shane Signorino Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting No Exit at the Chapel until September 1, 2018

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The Light in the Piazza
Book by Craig Lucas, Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel
Directed by Christina Rios
Choreographed by Cecily A. King
R-S Theatrics
August 9, 2018

Macia Noorman, Tiélere Cheatem
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is great with making people anticipate their shows. They’ll announce a show months–sometimes as much as a year–in advance, and it creates this sense in me of “wow! They’re doing X show? That sounds great! I can’t wait to see it!” That was the case with last year’s In The Heights, and now with their latest production, The Light In the Piazza. Like everything R-S does, this show hadn’t been produced locally in St. Louis before (although the national tour based on the Broadway production played at the Fox), and I was looking forward to seeing what this theatre company–that has already produced many excellent shows in the past–would do with it. Well, it’s on stage now at the Marcelle, and I’m happy to say that it was worth the wait.

This show, which I had heard the score for but not seen until this production, was a hit on Broadway and had a national tour as well as a PBS broadcast performance. It’s a somewhat unusual hit in terms of having a relatively small cast, a more classical-sounding score, and having several extended untranslated sequences in Italian, although there are also important scenes that are translated in a particuarly effective way. The story, based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer that was also turned into a film in 1962, follows American mother and daughter Margaret (Kay Love) and Clara Johnson (Macia Noorman), who at first appear to be “ordinary” tourists in Florence, where Margaret is showing her daughter the sights of the city and the youthful Clara attracts the interest of a young Italian man, Fabrizio (Tiélere Cheatem). The attraction is mutual, but Margaret is concerned because of a secret about Clara that Margaret is reluctant to reveal. We also get to meet Fabrizio’s family, who are close-knit but also have troubles of their own, such as Fabrizio’s married older brother, Giuseppe (Michael Lowe), who neglects his wife, Franca (Stephanie Merritt) in favor of the attentions of other women. His parents Signor and Signora Naccarelli (Kent Coffel, Jodi Stockton) are wary but initially supportive, although, inevitably, there are complications that have to be worked out, and Margaret has to deal with her own feelings of regret and concern for her and her family’s past and present realities, as well as being understandably protective of her daughter, while also wanting to encourage Clara to make her own choices.   There’s a lot of detail here that I’m leaving out because the journey of discovery is an important part of the play. The tone is lyrical, emotional, and alternately melancholy and romantic.

With the intense emotional and vocal demands of a show like this, a strong cast is essential, and this production has that. Led by the reflective, nuanced and wonderfully sung performance of Love as Margaret, and by the equally excellent Noorman in a sensitive, also well-sung turn as the youthful, determined Clara, this cast is extremely well chosen. Love and Noorman display a strong and credible mother-daughter relationship, and their scenes together are a highlight of the show. Cheatem, as the love-struck young Fabrizio, is also strong although occasionally struggling with volume on the vocals, although his vocal quality is superb, and the chemistry betweeen him and Noorman grows in intensity over the course of the show. There are also solid supporting performances from Coffel, Lowe, and Merritt, and an especially memorable portrayal by Stockton as the occasionally snarky Signora Nacarelli, who doesn’t speak English but still translates a lot of the Italian scenes by way of the magic of theatre. There’s a great ensemble here, too, in excellent voice and delivering complex harmonies with style, as well as helping to contribute to the overall 1950s atmosphere of the piece.

That time-and-place atmosphere is also supported by means of particularly impressive production values. The show fits well into its venue, the Marcelle Theatre, with a performance space that’s just the right size for this show. Director Christina Rios has staged the show with a constance sense of movement, as well as taking time for reflection as necessary. The set, designed by J. Keller Ryan, is simple and versatile, consisting of marble-painted blocks that are arranged to suggest the Florentine setting, as well as being able to be moved around as needed. The costumes, by Ashley Bauman, are well-suited to the characters and the era, and Nathan Schroeder’s ethereal lighting also contributes to the mood. Although there are occasional moments where the musical accompaniment can overpower the vocals, the stunning score is well-played by the superb band, as well, led by music director Sarah Nelson.

This is a thoughtful, reflective, highly emotional play that deals with many thought-provoking and timeless themes, especially in terms of risk and regret involved with love, both familial and romantic. Its well-defined characters and lyrical atmosphere are well-represented in this memorable production from a theatre company that already has a strong reputation for dramatic excellence. The Light In the Piazza is illuminating, challenging, heart-warming, and well-worth seeing.

Kay Love
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting The Light in the Piazza at the Marcelle Theatre until August 26, 2018

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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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