Taking its cue from the 1944 MGM classic in which Judy Garland was never lovelier (it has always been my favourite of her films: my mother and I can communicate in St Louis-isms), any stage adaptation of Meet Me in St Louis can safely rely on nostalgia and the evergreen songs to inspire a fuzzy feeling of contentment, yet the visual lushness that defined Vincente Minnelli’s genius is more difficult to match. To Meet Me in St Louis devotees, Rose, Esther, Agnes and Tootie are as beloved as Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, drawn from life in Sally Benson’s 5135 Kensington Avenue stories (it’s surprising that no publishing house specialising in lost gems has reissued them).
Set in an age of innocence in which nice girls didn’t let men kiss them until after they were engaged and a square dance would be the highlight of a teenagers’ house party, the episodic storyline charts the Smith family’s excitement about the 1904 World’s Fair set to make the St Louis the centre of the WHOLE UNIVERSE. Big brother Lon looks forward to starting at Princeton, Rose and Esther are both longing for romance and Agnes and Tootie have mischief on their minds, until – quel horreur – Papa announces that he plans to uproot the family to New York.
The cosy Landor places us right there in the Smiths’ home, though the small scale that ought to be ideal for a story with an entirely domestic focus proves a mixed blessing (this is somewhat ironic as Ragtime – set at exactly the same time and enormous in scope – managed to work so brilliantly in this space). Minnelli’s vision of idealised upper-middle-class turn-of-the-century life was like that of an exceptionally beautiful genre painting in which every shot is filled with painterly detail. Robert McWhir’s direction is less slick than usual and the dance numbers (choreographed by Robbie O’Reilly) are engaging but a tad cramped. The famous Halloween scene is rather fumbled, with little of the American gothic that ought to counterbalance all the sweetness and light.
Amongst a cast made up mostly of recent graduates, Georgia Permutt makes a ginger-peachy professional debut as the daringly forward Esther; her solos are charmingly done and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ is a breath of fresh air, sung just to Tootie (the angelic Rebecca Barry with a touch of Flora in The Turn of the Screw) instead of as a showstopper. She and Emily Jeffries as the hoity-toity Rose (who rather doth protest too much) preen and flounce off each winsomely as the two most boy-crazy girls in Missouri. John Truitt, better known as the boy next door, is a love interest without any defining characteristics (he likes basketball and that’s about it); a blank canvas for Esther’s fantasies, played here with gauche charm by Piers Bate.Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s film score gave Garland almost all the solos, so extra songs are added to make things more democratic.
None of these additions are equal to the film numbers but there is a lovely sense of a house filled with music presided over by Nova Skipp’s warm and wise Mama, and musical director Michael Webborn seems to be having a super time throughout. And, most importantly, the cleverly economical staging of the ‘The Trolley Song’ that closes the first act made me feel so good I couldn’t even speak.