There is some very snappy tap dancing along with classic songs like The Boy Next Door, The Trolley Song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and Meet Me in St. Louis in the production of Meet Me in St. Louis: A Live Radio Play, now at ART of WNY.
In the radio play concept, contemporary actors play the parts at microphones with a live studio audience, which they entertain with song and dance as well as the film script. The audience is made up of, well, the audience in the theater. An “Applause” sign lights up when we are supposed to be very pleased with the happenings on stage, and there is also an “On the Air” sign for the actors. Commercials are interspersed throughout the proceedings, one urging the audience to shop on Elmwood. The radio station in this show is called WART.
This particular radio play is based on the 1944 Judy Garland/Vincent Minelli (Liza’s momma and poppa) musical film about the Smith family in St. Louis in 1903, just prior to the World’s Fair. On stage, the actors are in 1940s costumes, and they have a bit of drama of their own going on before the show begins and during commercials.
The Smith family have four daughters and one son who deal with a very autocratic father. Two daughters are in love, one is a very precocious child, and the fourth is not quite ready for romance. The son is off to college soon, Princeton no less. The daughters-in-love both pretend to not be so, and their would-be lovers suffer at their hands. The melodrama that ensues fits the time period but feels rather dated in the 21st century, #MeToo world we now inhabit.
The songs are delightful. The choreography by Carly Luksch is appealing, particularly that tap dancing. The cast is talented and enthusiastic, singing their hearts out. They ham it up, overacting much like on many of the old radio shows. However, when singing and in romantic moments they are very real and the overacting absents itself.
Courtney Maj plays the Judy Garland role as Esther, who falls in love with the boy next door. She is very good in her role, and her voice is very sweet but not particularly strong. Therein lies a problem with the room itself. The stage is large, the room larger, and the ceilings are very high–it's no wonder that voices get lost. I found it hard to hear Maj and to understand some of the dialogue, particularly when actors were facing away from the audience. Stronger voices, like those of Joe Russi as Esther’s love interest, and Candice Kogut, who plays the mother and oldest sister Rose, fare much better.
Kelly O’Hara, wearing an awful pantsuit, plays the precocious youngest sister with snippy charm. She is a delight. Carly Luksch as Agnes, the middle sister not yet ready for romance and the maid, has a great disgusted head toss, as well as some fine dance moves. Derrick Reynolds is very busy as emcee Freddie Fillmore, autocratic father, and aged grandfather. He is clearly having a very good time on stage. Candice Kogut has a lovely number with Esther, “You’ll Hear a Bell," that showcases her acting chops as well as her singing voice. Joe Spahn triples as the sound guy–making all kinds of noises from a loft above the stage, Rose’s love interest, and the son heading off to college. He wears brown checked pants that are way too long for him. I worried he would trip when dancing, but they did not deter him from enthusiastically hoofing it with everyone else.
Keeping the music going is the very talented man on the piano, Donny Jenzcka. Direction is by Matthew LaChiusa, with Costumes by Katherine Butler, who made some unusual choices.
Meet Me in St. Louis: A Live Radio Play provides an entertaining bit of distraction from the holiday madness with some classic songs, and a fosters a belief in the fantasy that there actually were kinder, gentler times. You can see it at the Theater Loft on Elmwood on December 21st and 22nd @ 8:00 p.m.