A smart pick for the season

Musical: "Meet Me in St. Louis" is a delightful holiday offering.

Review

Howard Live

December 11, 2003|By William Hyder | William Hyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Toby's Dinner Theatre has done a smart thing in scheduling Meet Me in St. Louis as its holiday attraction.

It is a show for the family, about a family, offering colorful period costumes and plenty of familiar songs.

Based on the familiar movie musical, the show introduces us to the Smith household of St. Louis. Some of its members are familiar figures: the autocratic father, the understanding mother, the kindly grandfather, the Irish cook who speaks her mind. There are also two daughters interested in marriage named Rose and Esther, two prepubescent daughters, Tootie and Agnes, and a college-age son, Lon.

The action begins in the summer of 1903. Everyone is looking forward to the world's fair (officially, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) that will open the next year. The elder daughters, though, are chiefly occupied with romantic matters.

Esther is trying to attract John, who has moved in next door. Rose is interested in Warren but pretends to be interested in Douglas to make Warren jealous. (Tootie and Agnes have stories of their own, but the two young performers, unfortunately, have a rapid, indistinct delivery that makes it hard to comprehend what their concerns might be.)

Alonzo Smith, the father, announces that he has received a promotion, which means the family will be moving to New York in the new year. This goes over badly. Everyone hates the idea of leaving the city, the house they all love, the boyfriends and the coming world's fair.

That's enough of the story. The twists in the plot are arbitrary and convenient, so the thing to do is sit back and enjoy the individual scenes, the songs and dances, the costumes and period charm.

The show's greatest charm lies in its depiction of old-fashioned courtship. The sexes speak formally to each other, relationships move slowly and a kiss is a rare prize. Esther and Rose are required by the customs of their time to act coy, sometimes feigning indifference to the men they're interested in, sometimes fawning on them.

The double game Rose is playing gives rise to a running gag: She can never meet one man without the other showing up. The stiff, gentlemanly rivalry between the two young men provides a good share of amusement.

Many members of the audience enjoyed watching the two young women working hard to land their men under the old rules, and some even seemed to think the system wasn't so bad.

Director Toby Orenstein, as usual, has fielded a strong cast: AK Brink and Janine Gulisano as Esther and Rose respectively, David Bosley Reynolds and Heather Marie Beck as the father and mother, David James as Lon (he and Felicia Curry, as his girlfriend Ida Boothby, do an impressive dance number), Jill Shullenbarger as Katie the cook, Robert Biedermann 125 as Grandpa, and Greg Etling, Shawn Kettering and Jeffrey A. Clise as the three swains.

The score is a winner. Most people know "The Trolley Song," "The Boy Next Door" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," all written for the film by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin.

In addition, there are some charming period numbers. The title song "Meet Me in St. Louis" was written in 1904 by Andrew B. Sterling and Kerry Mills to capitalize on the world's fair.

"Under the Bamboo Tree" (1902), sung by Esther and Tootie to entertain guests at a party, is the work of the African-American songwriters Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson (brother of the poet James Weldon Johnson).

And if you listen closely you can hear snatches of "Good-bye, My Lady Love" (Joe Howard, 1904), "My Sweetheart's the Man in the Moon" (James Thornton, 1892) and "Kingdom Coming" (Henry C. Work, 1862).

Samn Huffer has designed attractive costumes that evoke the look of 1904 (although the sleeveless sweaters and bow ties worn by the men in the Act I party scene look more like 1924).

The choreography by Ilona Kessell has an innocence that suits the period.

Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents "Meet Me in St. Louis" through Feb. 8. Evenings: Doors open 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays. Matinees: Doors open 10:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required. Information or reservations: 410-730-8311 or 800-888-6297.

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