“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley ...”—which around these parts gets confounded with cable car bells and tourist-ridden summers, just as Meet Me in St. Louis’ other big hit, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” has led some to think of (or to list) the 1944 Vincente Minelli movie musical as a Christmas film.
But the stage adaptation of the film musical (that rare bird), as it’s staged by Contra Costa Civic Theatre, shows it to be a comic piece of nostalgia for an older, family-oriented America, clearly a mood elevator for World War II audiences. It’s not all “family values,” though, that later, reactionary concoction.
The family is a rather eccentric one, and the pater familias (in a fine portrayal by Kyle Johnson) is a bemused, bewildered, even exasperated one, in his efforts to further his career and fund his family’s whims and own social aspirations by relocating to New York. (When his debutantish elder daughter spurns his plans as being too crass and money-centered, he ripostes her thrust with, “and you spend it!”)
The story follows the Smith family through the year of waiting for the International Exposition of 1904 in their hometown. The two oldest girls are also concerned with their beaux—an heir to a family fortune (Drew Fowler as Warren Sheffield) who keeps calling Rose (Angel Almeida), only to be put off, and the Boy Next Door (Chris Geritz as John Truitt) whose baseball practice seems to keep him from recognizing his fervent but carefully practiced, nonchalant admirer (Liz Caffrey as Esther, the Judy Garland role in the movie).
As directed with care and sensitivity by Tammara Plankers (who provides a fine program note) and G. A. Klein, this is a refreshingly ensemble-based community production, with special solo and duet moments rising out of the group interactions. Besides Kyle Johnson and Jennifer Stark (Mrs. Smith), fine singers (whose duet of “Wasn’t It Fun?” is a high point), Hattie B. Mullaly (housekeeper Katie, who also cuts a stepdancing rug on “A Touch of the Irish”) and a small ensemble which appears before the curtain between scenes, most of the singing expresses mainly exuberance, which is the right motor for such a production, especially one centered on family and the ups and downs of young people and children.
But the dance numbers are something else again, in particular, the whole dance party scene in Act One, comprising “Skip To My Lou,” a straw hat vaudeville number (from the same source as a song in T. S. Eliot’s ominous fragment, “Sweeney Agonistes”) “Under The Bamboo Tree,” and “The Banjo”—Derrick Silva’s choreography is engrossing and delightful, making the long scene a progressive production number.
“Under The Bamboo Tree” is performed by Esther and her little sisters, Agnes (Sophie Gabel-Scheinbaum) and Tootie (Emma Thvedt, in the role that won little Margaret O’Brien a special miniature Oscar, the only Academy Award for the film that year). Throughout, the child actors are wonderful, showing an enthusiastic, mischievous quality that certainly fits these little mock-ingenues.
And, as Esther, Liz Caffrey deserves a special notice for the juice she puts into the crucial role, making it better and better, until she brings off a near-perfect rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” to a sleepy, forlorn Tootie, on the verge of the reluctant family’s departure East.
Meet Me in St. Loius is a family show, by a company that declares on the cover of their program, “You Are Our Community--We Are Your Theatre.” But the production values (including Pat King’s musical direction and Malcolm Rodgers’ well thought-out and beautifully painted set design)—as well as a well-managed house and box office (Alex Ray and Holly Winter, respectively)—belie the usual stigma attached to “community theater.”
It’s a reflection on how far Bay Area theater has come, and in what depth it’s arrived, on the level of performance. CCCT—and in particular, Louis Flynn, its founding artistic director, the irascible motorman on the trolley which clang, clang, clangs—deserves to be proud of their capability for mounting such a fine summer show for their audience.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS
Presented by Contra Costa Civic Theatre at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 4. 524-9132.