Adapting a vintage, classic movie musical hit like Metro-Goldwyn Mayer’s 1944 “Meet Me In St. Louis” and its subsequent successful stage production to a small stage is a tall task. You can’t do it halfway. It needs a superb orchestra, super-talented cast and staff, especially when it’s rife with oldtime nostalgic favorite tunes, “”The Trolley Song,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “The Boy Next Door,” “Skip to My Lou,” and rollicking, oft-repeated theme song, “Meet Me in St. Louis”.
The movie has quite a pedigree. Starring Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main, June Lockhart, and other silver screen standouts then, it was directed by Vincente Minnelli, (whom Garland married later), and was the second-highest money-making movie that year. It was remade for television a few times throughout the years and produced as a Broadway musical, based on the film, in 1989. Its characters were more developed and a few songs added. It later opened off-Broadway in 2006 and has graced stages in New Jersey, London, England, and, not surprisingly, St. Louis.
Irving Brecher and Fred. F. Finklehoffe’s musical adaptation of Sally Benson‘s short stories, “5135 Kensington,” (and novel), is the charming tale of a typical, American family in 1903-4, the time of St. Louis’ Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair.
Stoneham’s version, directed by the theater’s associate artistic director, Caitlin Lowans, features book by Hugh Wheeler, songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine. It’s also based on Benson’s book, “The Kensington Stories”.
Unfortunately, Stoneham Theatre isn’t up to the task of recreating this musical, that’s supposed to abound in bygone era charm and family togetherness. Excluding mega-talented, versatile Robert Saoud as Mr. Alonzo Smith and rising star Sirena Abalian as his lovestruck teen-age daughter, Esther Smith, Stoneham’s 18-member cast falls short. The musical accompaniment is thin, with Music Director Bethany Aiken on keyboard, Taylor Kirkwood on second keyboard, and drummer Mick Lewander. Some ensemble songs require big, bombastic sounds, and stronger accompaniment for less accomplished singers.
Elements of family fun and fuss are here: Son Alonzo Jr. “Lon,” (Daniel Irwin) is going off to Princeton soon. Daughter Rose (Gigi Watson) is in love with a wealthy suitor, Warren Sheffield (Ryan O’Connor), but acts petulant and hard-to-get towards him. Esther (Sirena Abalian) has her sights on John Truitt (Felix Teich), the new boy next door. Youngest daughter Tootie ( an endearing Skylar DiCecca) is mischievous, and her slightly older sister, Agnes, (Natalie Hall) is her partner in crime, when they’re not hassling.
While Dad Alonzo (Saoud) likes to rule the roost, mother Anna (graciously portrayed by Susan S. McGinnis), is supportive to her entire family and husband. Grandpa Prophater (William Gardiner) gets in the act, too, as a ready listener, willing shoulder to cry on, and fellow stomper on stilts.
Skylar DiCecca’s solo, “The Drunk Song” is cute, (she alternates performances as Tootie with Chloe Nasson) and Anna’s advice on love to Esther in her solo, “You’ll Hear a Bell,” is touching; but her daughters are in love and hear nothing but the trolley clang. No wonder. There’s little charisma between couples, even when they’re lip-locked.
The ensemble’s song-and-dance number,“The Banjo” lacks gusto, but “Skip to My Lou” is livelier. The Smiths’ blustery Irish maid, Katie (Liliane Klein) aids and abets the girls’ romantic exploits, and even offers advice in her solo, “A Touch of the Irish”.
But when Dad announces he got a big job promotion, so they’re leaving St. Louis and moving to New York City after Christmas, the family is upset. Esther and Rose are convinced their romances are derailed. Like all those musicals with happy endings, everyone’s celebratory in the finale.
While Megan F. Kinneen’s foldaway set is fine overall, the long-anticipated, illuminated firework-popping big fair finale is represented by a large, brown-and-white drawing of a ferris wheel, a few colorful flashing lights and popping sounds. However, a tip of the hat to designer Tyler Kinney’s handsome period costumes.
Stoneham Theatre isn’t totally off-track, though. The idea of introducing an old-fashioned, family, romantic musical at Christmastime is laudable - a welcome breath of fresh air. I attended “Meet Me In St. Louis” on opening weekend, so here’s hoping the kinks get ironed out, and everyone has a “Merry Little Christmas”.
BOX INFO: Two-act musical, book by Hugh Wheeler, songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, appearing through Dec, 28, at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham, Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2,7 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets, $50-$55; seniors, $45-$50; students with valid ID, $15. Call the Box Office at 781-279-2200 or visit www.stonehamtheatre.org.