All Things Entertaining and Cultural
I have seen several theatrical productions of the Judy Garland classic, and all of them seemed more like a 1950s sitcom, redolent with wholesome but sappy scenes, than a satisfying piece of musical theater. Even the best staging I saw, oddly enough at an outdoor theater in a New Jersey state park, couldn’t get past the treacly innocence of the script Hugh Wheeler wrote for a 1989 mounting that starred George Hearn and Donna Kane.
By turning the show into a radio play, with the theater audience serving as a studio audience, Landry added layers of entertainment options that perk up “Meet in St. Louis” and make it brisk, bright, and festive instead naïve and trite. Gordon Greenberg’s mounting of Landry’s adaptation, at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse through December 29 is snappy (not sappy) and has a tone of sophistication to it, mainly because of the star turns done by an ensemble that enlivens every song, delivers the dialogue in a ’40s style that gibes with both radio and Wheeler’s script, and brings touches of personality and individuality to the characters they play in “Meet Me in St. Louis” and the radio actors they simultaneously portray.
For instance, Lauren Molina, playing the mischievous brat of the Smith family, Tootie, can use the kind of squeaky, overarticulated voice an adult actor might use while voicing over a child’s role, and not only get away with it but make it pay. When playing Tootie, Molina swings her arms and distorts her mouth like Popeye in a manner that brings energy to the part and creates an extra source of comedy. Molina’s bits are funnier yet because costumer Nicole V. Moody has dressed her in a sexy red cocktail dress that more befits her other character, the movie star Laria Sherwood, taking on radio roles as Tootie and the Smith family maid, Katie, for the delight of a radio audience.
Most of the actors play multiple parts, as they would have on radio, and they all do it with the moxie so evident in Molina. The performers are actors playing actors playing characters, and the Bucks County cast has fun with the concept. They can preen and smoke on the sidelines in their swank ’40s fashions, then ham it up when they get to play the Smiths or others on the broadcast. No one ever crosses the line into mugging or exaggerating Wheeler’s material, so all remains on a smart, lively keel for the 100 or so minutes of the performance.
Watching a radio program has its charms. Garth Kravits, billed as an actor named Butch Popkin, is also the main sound and prop man. It’s both interesting and fun to see him clank silverware to represent a meal, hold cleated shoes with his hand to bring about a lively and totally creative tap dance, and work with drums, horns, and other instruments to make Ed Chapman’s sound design a constantly entertaining delight. In the midst of his clanking and clinking and clunking, Kravits plays several roles, such as the Smith family brother, Lon, and Rose’s beau, Warren Sheffield, and does so with aplomb while never skipping a beat on his triangle or similar noisemaker he carries with him to the “radio mike.”
When Kravits is immersed in a scene, castmates Geoff Packard or Jay Russell take over for him at the prop table. All are adept at making the right noise at the right time, and all look as if they’re having a ball doing it.
Landry’s radio format also allows for commercial breaks, in the case of this production a welcome intrusion because, whether ads for actual products of the time, like Listerine or Camel cigarettes (the brand a poll says is preferred by most doctors, or fabricated for the occasion, they are cleverly written and cheekily presented with just the right amount of smirk and spunk.
In the radio context, the “Meet Me in St. Louis” dialogue plays better. Broadcast would call for fast, crisp line readings and a little sentimentality to keep the audience interested, and Greenberg’s actors deliver the goods. I found myself caring about the characters the way I do when I watch the Vincente Minnelli movie and not hoping they would get past the spoken drivel to arrive at a song, the way I’ve done when I’ve seen the play.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is known and loved most for Judy Garland’s performance as Esther Smith, the outspoken middle Smith child, and Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s songs that have stood the test of time and become a part of the Great American Songbook, particularly “The Trolley Song,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Boy Next Door,” and the title tune which was borrowed by Martin and Blane from a ditty Andrew Sterling and Kerry Mills wrote to herald the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition and World’s Fair in St. Louis, the fair that has the Smiths and their friends so excited.
The singing in the Bucks County production is glorious. Victoria Cook, intentionally strident as her actress alter ego, the stage star Ethel Potter, who comes out for her introduction to the radio audience with her elbows against her hips and her thumbs banging against forefingers that are pointed right at the audience to show Ethel is entering with guns blazing, turns from a hot mama to an elegant and moving songstress when, as the mother of the Smith home, she sings the lovely “You’ll Hear a Bell.” Cook’s voice has a purity that gives its both power and texture. She goes from donning eyeglasses when playing Mrs. Smith to wearing no specs to indicate she’s playing the eldest daughter, Rose, just as Molina adds a tiara with a maid’s bow on it to show when she is Katie as opposed to playing the precocious Tootie.
Chelsea Packard radiates ingenue loveliness as Esther. You look at Packard, and you see a young Grace Kelly standing there. You also hear a charming voice as Esther sings about her love for the boy next door and Tootie is comforted with a rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” “The Trolley Song” is an ensemble number in which Packard takes focus in the middle and holds your attention with a combination of Esther’s apprehension (about whether the boy next door will board the tram) and her own energy. Packard also nicely contrasts Esther’s girlishness with a worldly air she gives to her alter ego, the singer Sally Applewhite.
The oft-mentioned boy next door, John Truitt, is played with winning simplicity by Geoff Packard, who is the real-life husband of Chelsea Packard. Geoff does a cute bit in a pre-show warm-up in which he practices his juggling but misses quite a bit.
Having a grand old time in four parts is Jay Russell, who calculates the perfect balance of grumpiness, bluster, and capitulation as the Smith family patriarch, is sweet and teasing as the grandfather (Mrs. Smith’s father), is rustic and properly aged as the milk wagon driver who takes Tootie for rides on his horse-drawn cart, and is pearly voiced and a tad fatuous as the radio broadcast’s emcee, Freddie Fillmore. Solo pianist Phil Reno sounds like he’s an entire orchestra even when he doesn’t get help from the cast playing drums, guitar, banjo, and slide whistle.
Methinks Joe Landry must be an “I Love Lucy” fan because the minute I saw the name Freddie Fillmore, I thought of the radio announcer and quiz show host Lucy listened to on several episodes. The second I saw the name Ethel Potter, I thought of Ethel Mertz’s maiden name. There is a whole episode devoted to people visiting New York from Ethel’s hometown who say they are eager to see Little Ethel May Potter. I can’t think of “Lucy” references in regard to other characters. Perhaps Fillmore and Potter are coincidences but I doubt it. Landry used the same names for the actors in his radio-style adaptation of the 1946 holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I hope his “repertory troupe” visits often with new pieces of Landry’s shrewd and respectful handiwork. (By the way, Landry and BCP give the production a local touch by saying it’s broadcast on WBUX, a station that makes me think of good old days when I did regular guest stints with Louise Collins and the late Joan Stack, both of whom I continue to adore.)
The Bucks County Playhouse has made a miraculous resurgence in the two years since local people and New York producer Jed Bernstein, soon heading to a new role at Lincoln Center Theatre, refurbished the old barn and populated it with major talents in entertaining shows. This summer, Bernstein brought Andrea McArdle, Tyne Daly, Manoel Felciano, Bobby Steggert, Emily Skinner, Marsha Mason, Marilu Henner, and David Garrison to New Hope. In 2014, Henner will return to lead the cast of Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony-winning play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Also on the bill is Ira Levin’s comic mystery, “Deathtrap.”
“Meet Me in St. Louis: A Live Radio Play” runs through Sunday, December 29 at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, in New Hope, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 6 p.m. Sundays, Dec. 22 and 29. No show is scheduled for Christmas Eve or Christmas. Tickets range from $57.50 to $29 and can be ordered by calling 215-862-2121 or going online to www.bcptheater.org.