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Theater Review: Meet Me in Saint Louis

Another scene from "Meet Me in Saint Louis"
Katherine Mumma
/
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
Another scene from "Meet Me in Saint Louis"

The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre recently opened its production of the musical “Meet Me in Saint Louis”. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

Director Tony Humrichouser’s production of “Meet Me in Saint Louis” is a full scale, delightfully rich treat for the ear and eye. Those who enjoy the MGM motion picture won’t be disappointed as the familiar story and songs are vividly brought to life in the Civic Auditorium.

The focus of this musical for all ages is the homelife of an upper middle-class American family, the Smiths, during the year before the opening of the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis.

Part of this show’s success is grounded in director Humrichouser’s careful attention to detail in creating the web of relationships among family members and other characters.

Seated squarely at the head of the family dinner table is the father, Mr. Alonso Smith. He is appropriately rendered by Norman Frazier as a self-centered professional whose attention is more focused on the timing of his bath and the cut of his corned beef than on the comfort, convenience, and interests of others in the household.

Scene from "Meet Me in Saint Louis"
Katherine Mumma
/
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
Scene from "Meet Me in Saint Louis"

Although Ashley McPheters as Mrs. Smith dutifully defers to her husband in all decisions, she seems to see through his gruff veneer. Her stiff silences and downcast looks, along with similar actions by others at the table, belie respectful disagreement with Alonso, and help set up the disappointment that surfaces following his decision to move the family to New York.

The age difference and pecking order among Smith’s five children is manifested by their seating and carefully chosen lines of conversation at the dinner table. Mutual bonds of support are revealed through the intricate harmonies of the Smith Family Octet’s “Whenever I’m with You”.

The desires of the family’s daughters are brought to light early on. Older sister Rose, played by Emily Awe, masks her attraction to suitor Warren, played by Aaron Potter. Seeking a proposal, she feigns disdain for his complements in the amusing duet, “Raving Beauty”.

Sarah Aiello, as Esther, confides her interest in John with the winsome number “The Boy Next Door”. Aiello mixes modesty with spirit as she pursues John, played with innocent charm by Logan Awe. As she reluctantly hands him his hat, she coaxes him to linger as lights are dimmed for “Over the Bannister”, a duet that starts their courtship.

These sparks burst into flames as Aiello shares her character’s visceral feelings for John with fellow passengers in her full-throated delivery of “The Trolley Song”. The clangs, dings, and zings in the lyrics are energetically supported by an ensemble that fills the stage in a whirling frenzy of sound, color, and motion. As the trolley spins to an elated first act finale, Aiello’s Esther plucks every heartstring in the house.

Amy Leskowski, as the family cook Katie, opens Act Two with the spirited jig, “A Touch of the Irish”.

Peter Bryant, as Smith brother Lon, leads the ensemble in the lively “Banjo Song,” the first in a series of dances at the annual ball on Christmas Eve. Katerina Willis’s inventive choreography helps underscore the temporal nature of Rose and Esther’s love life and accentuates what could be their last Christmas in Saint Louis, as dance partners mix, match, and change places.

As the petulant Tootie, played by Sydney Leskowski, waits for Santa and bemoans the family’s impending move from their hometown, Esther tries to sooth her younger sister with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.

Aiello’s captivating delivery of this holiday favorite contains the proper mix of attempted reassurance as well as a seasonal melancholy that infects the singer and moves Tootie to tears. This emotional moment prompts an eavesdropping Alonso to announce cancellation of plans to leave Saint Louis. It also confirms what many women in the family have suspected: this seemingly resolute head of the household can be moved when presented with proper female encouragement.

The company’s reprise of the title song at the opening of the fair underscores the hometown pride and the family relationships that are front and center. Here, and throughout, the work of Music Director Sirasa Schonder and her orchestra shines.

Finally, the production benefits from a strong visual presentation that features Elaine Kauffman’s colorful period costumes and a nod to the Gibson Girl style.

David Kyhn’s flexible white wood gingerbread set includes a front porch unit that doubles as a trolley. Kyhn’s colorful backdrop changes with each season. Although Christmas is celebrated, “Meet Me in Saint Louis” is about the durability of family ties that extends beyond the holidays.

The dynamic production currently on the Civic Stage can be seen through December 18th.

A former station manager of WMUK, Gordon Bolar is now the station's theater reviewer.
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