Theater review: 'Meet Me in St. Louis' 

When Screen Plays announced a production of "Meet Me in St. Louis" at the Lyric Theatre this month, it caused a quick double take. Wasn't that last year's show? Could this be a misprint, or a mistaken announcement? As it turns out, Geva Theatre and "A Christmas Carol" doesn't have a corner market on holiday show traditions, and Screen Plays is setting out to create its own recurring festivity with a live radio adaptation of "Meet Me in St. Louis."

The play-within-a-play is set in the same era as the 1944 Judy Garland film, and six ensemble "radio actors" from the 1940s portray the dozen or so characters in the early 20th century tale. When the story begins, it's 1903. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition -- also known as the St. Louis World's Fair -- is to be held the following year, and everyone in town (and internationally) is waiting with bated breath.

Esther Smith (Jessie Keim) is excited for the fair, too -- but not as excited as she is about the boy who just moved in next door, John Truett (Peter Raimondo). Meanwhile her sister Rose (Courtney Weather) has her cap set for a suitor from New York, brother Lon (Rob Keim) is preparing to leave for college, and little sister Tootie (Emily Putnam) is always making mischief.

Last year's entire Screen Plays cast has returned, with the exception of Eric Schutt, replaced in this show by recent Niagara University graduate Raimondo (Schutt is currently across town playing the lead role in JCC CenterStage's "First Date: The Broadway Comedy Musical").

The show, which is performed in the Lyric's intimate Cabaret Hall, doesn't have a lot of scenic design since it's supposed to resemble a radio studio. Vintage microphones line the front of the stage, and Christmas greenery adds warmth and ambience. The interesting part of the stage setup is the "sound booth," where live sound effects like bird whistles, table setting, punching, footsteps, soup slurping, and others are created. All the actors have a turn producing sound effects, but Rob Keim orchestrates the majority of this part of the show (and quite expertly, at that).

The most remarkable part of "Meet Me in St. Louis" is the cast. Community theatre can be all over the board, talent-wise, but producer/director Karen Tuccio has assembled some of the best vocal and acting chops in town with this show. Jessie Keim, in Garland's role of Esther Smith, evoked tears from most of the audience with her rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Her real-life husband, Rob (Lon/Warren), is laugh-out-loud hysterical, particularly in the "Chiquita Banana" commercial scene. Weather, as Rose/Anna, has a belter's voice and a sassy stage presence; Putnam, who plays Tootie/Katie, is one of the strongest vocalists and demonstrates her grasp of wit and her acting versatility as both a young child and an older Irish maid. As Alonzo/Grandpa, Greg Ludek is grumpy yet goodhearted, also taking full advantage of the script's comedic moments. Raimondo -- who seems to be the youngest member of the cast -- is a seamless replacement for Schutt, keeping up in the role of John and several other bit parts nicely.

Though the cast sings essentially a full Broadway score during the two and a half hour production, there's no band to accompany them. Just Larry Neeck, a gifted pianist who doesn't miss a beat (that anyone let on) throughout the performance. Costumes by Shelly Stam are period appropriate, while sparkling jewelry, oversized flower pins, bowties, and coiffed hair adds to the cheery appearance of the cast.

Tuccio chose to introduce the cast members one-by-one after the show ended, rather than letting them take a communal bow. Though she undoubtedly has good intentions, a potential standing ovation died down to an awkward silence as Tuccio read from a script and plugged an upcoming production. Audience members who might have liked to slip out into the silent night and let the magic of the show settle around them no longer had that luxury. (Not to mention everyone was more than ready to vacate the mean little folding chairs set up in uncomfortably close proximity to one another.)

But even that misstep could not derail the charm of the production. There may be plenty of theatrical options around town in the next few weeks, but seeing "Meet Me in St. Louis" is a holiday tradition worth beginning.

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