Another year, another upbeat Christmas musical at Welk Resort Theatre. The Escondido entertainment space has featured plenty of festive shows during the holidays. A major section of the light musical Meet Me in St. Louis takes place around December 25 and features the classic tune, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Based on the popular 1944 Judy Garland film directed by Vincente Minnelli, the adaptation focuses on the upper-middle class Smith family, and their many adventures in Missouri during the early 1900s. The second eldest daughter, Esther (Chelsea Emma Franko), has a crush on “The Boy Next Door,” John Truitt (Luke Monday). As Esther tries to get John’s attention, her older sister, Rose (Sarah Errington) hopes that her suitor in New York, Warren Sheffield (Drew Grant), proposes to her over the phone. Little does she know that her intended fiancée suffers from commitment issues.
If the plot sounds slight, that is because the story is small in scope. The conflicts with Esther and Rose in Act I are nothing earth shattering and the focus is more on extravagant musical numbers and casual verbal interactions.
Karl Warden’s athletic movements on songs such as “Skip to My Lou” and “The Banjo” are extremely difficult to stage at such an intimate space. The ensemble and Warden pull off the meticulous dance moves with high-spirited enthusiasm on Doug Davis’ nostalgic set.
Carlotta Malone’s costumes do not feel like replicas of clothes from the movie. Her choices are appropriate for each character even for the smallest of roles.
Almost all the songs from the flick are featured such as “The Trolley Song” and “Under the Bamboo Tree.” However, the majority of tunes in Act II were not in the theatrical release. Most of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s music and lyrics in the second half are fun to listen to, especially “A Touch of the Irish” starring the Smith’s maid, Katie (Susan E.V. Boland). Backed by a five-member orchestra lead by pianist/conductor/music director, Justin Gray, Boland and the band make the song a joyful ditty.
The only duet that feels too much like filler is one between Esther and John, “You Are For Loving.” While the song is nice to hear, the placement is shortly before the climax and it would have been more appropriate if the melody was used earlier in the act. On the plus side, Jennifer Edwards’ lighting adds a romantic quality to the scene.
Raising the stakes of the plot is the stern yet loving patriarch, Mr. Alonso (Eric Hellmers). A revelation in Act II creates a little bit of tension since Alonso has to make a decision that could affect the lives of everyone he loves.
Hellmers has touching chemistry with Wendy Waddell as his wife, Mrs. Anna. Not only do they have the believability of a married couple still in love, but they both can actually sing unlike movie stars Leon Ames and Mary Astor (their singing voices were dubbed by lyricist/film producer, Arthur Freed and Denny Markas.).
Esther is one of the iconic Garland roles and to her credit, Franko does not try emulate the actress. Her modern style of singing does take some time to adjust to, but she emotes later musical numbers such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with a highly expressive voice.
Commanding the stage whenever she appears is Errington whose music and comedy skills are once again put to good use. Errington
always seems to be living in the moment whether dancing with a group of people or getting into comical verbal arguments.
Maxine Sutton, Katelyn Katz, Fisher Kaake and Gary Gordon come across as real life family members playing the Smith clan.
Hugh Wheeler’s book does not deviate too much from the silver screen rendition, although the tone can feel less earnest and jokier. That is not to say that the film was not without humor, but even some of the more serious situations under Larry Raben’s direction have a comedic quality not included in the motion picture. Arguably, this decision makes certain situations have less of an emotional impact, but they are no less entertaining.
A problem that cannot be ignored from the enjoyably family friendly night were miking issues. From the opening lyric to the resolution, there were technical glitches, which made certain lines inaudible. The issues will likely be fixed, but this problem was occasionally distracting.
Still, Raben has staged a charmingly old fashioned tale that is playing at the appropriate time of the year. By the end, audience members will likely want to “dance the hoochie coochie.”