STAGE REVIEW : 'St. Louis' in O.C.: Wait for the Movie

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

How you react to "Meet Me in St. Louis," the reconstituted musical based on the 1944 MGM hit movie of the same name, will depend on a couple of things: How well you remember and loved the movie--and how much bland and processed "pure entertainment" you can tolerate.

The edition of this 1989 Broadway show that opened Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center has undergone nipping and tucking. The impressive Broadway sets by Keith Anderson, which reportedly included fountains, a skating pond and a trolley that "twirled around on stage," have been scaled down in this touring version designed by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio.

The Hugh Wheeler book, we're told, has also been rewritten some, but can any amount of rewriting make this plot compelling?

The movie, directed by Vincente Minnelli, rode high on the performance of Judy Garland and the Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane songs she popularized: the title song, "The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and the traditional "Skip to My Lou."

But it was always hard to care if Esther Smith (played here by Debby Boone) gets her "Boy Next Door," bashful John Truitt (Stuart Larson). And a threatened move of this all-American Smith family from St. Louis to New York (which only comes up in the second act) doesn't cut it as drama.

The musical was created with the idea that the nostalgic familiarity of the songs would carry the weak plot, which makes it a case of the tail wagging the dog. But the result--an artificially sweetened package intended to make audiences yearn for a gentler time--amounts to so much wishful thinking. White bread to the max. What you get is a prettified, neatly sung, adequately danced, paint-by-numbers musical that blithely ignores fundamental rules of dramatic action, let alone tension.

Boone virtually exemplifies the blandness, singing well but without much character. She is supported by a collection of well-mannered performers who know how to go through their paces to deliver this picture-perfect, turn-of-the-century, imaginary middle-class family--docile, pert and utterly unbelievable. A Hallmark card.

All efforts to pump real blood into these characters are decidedly minor. Little Alexandra Currie is a spunky Tootie (the role played by Margaret O'Brien in the film) and Megan Drew is only a tad less distinct as her slightly older sister Agnes, but they've both clearly been encouraged to be terminally cute. Ditto Billy Barnes (yes, the Billy Barnes, composer and revue-master) as their Grandpa with a taste for funny hats. An entirely dispensable character.

The rest of the cast is just as equally competent--not bad, not distinguished, hobbled by having to play such wind-up figures.

Only Barbara Sharma as Katie the maid brings a breath of real life to the stage. But it's not enough to save this piece from coming across as exactly what it is: A lazy remake of a successful film, content to ride those coattails without seriously acknowledging the change of medium and doing something about it.

To what degree responsibility for any of this rests with the producers, with songwriters Martin and Blane, with book writer Wheeler or with the director of this edition, Paul Blake, is a mystery. But audiences deserve better. This kind of artistic complacency is one of the principal reasons the Broadway musical theater--and the "road"--are in such terrible trouble.

* "Meet Me in St. Louis," Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Today-Sunday, 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $19-$42; (714) 556-ARTS, (714) 740-2000, (213) 480-3232). Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

'Meet Me in St. Louis'

Debby Boone: Esther Smith

Melissa Gallagher: Rose Smith

Jeb Brown: Lon Smith

Jo Ann Cunningham: Mrs. Smith

Joneal Joplin: Mr. Smith

Alexandra Currie: Tootie Smith

Megan Drew: Agnes Smith

Barbara Sharma: Katie

Billy Barnes: Grandpa Prophater

Stuart Larson: John Truitt

Christopher Gasti: Warren Sheffield

Vickie Taylor: Lucille Ballard

Gerald Quinn: Postman/Dr. Brown

A musical based on Sally Benson's "The Kensington Stories" and the MGM motion picture "Meet Me in St. Louis." Presented by the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Pace Theatrical Group, Inc. and GFI Productions in association with 5135 Productions Inc. Producer Kevin McCollum. Book Hugh Wheeler. Songs Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane. Sets Deborah Raymond, Dorian Vernacchio. Lights Martin Aronstein. Sound Otts Munderloh. Director Paul Blake. Choreographer Donald Saddler. Associate choreographer Mercedes Ellington. Musical director/conductor Bruce Pomahac. Orchestrations Michael Gibson, Phil Lang. Additional orchestrations Irwin Kostal. Production stage manager Bill Holland. Stage manager Chris Hardt.

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