Theater Reviews

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Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, N.J.
Through Dec. 16

Absurdly overblown in its unsuccessful 1989 Broadway production and too small-scaled in an off-Broadway revival last year, "Meet Me in St. Louis" feels just right at the Paper Mill Playhouse.

This theatrical version of the classic 1944 MGM musical starring Judy Garland makes for perfect holiday entertainment, evoking a vanished era with a warm nostalgic glow.

Original composers Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote 10 new songs for the theatrical version, though none compare to such original classics as "The Trolley Song," "The Boy Next Door" and the haunting Yuletide classic "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Hugh Wheeler's book sticks closely to the film scenario, which was adapted from "The Kensington Stories" by Sally Benson.

The barely there story line concerns the upscale Smith family living in the titular city at the turn of the century, depicting the troubles gotten into by the young rapscallion Tootie (Sophie Rudin) and the burgeoning romance between daughter Esther (Brynn O'Malley) and the all-American boy next door (Brian Hissong). The main plot element concerns the decision of the patriarch (Broadway veteran Gregg Edelman) to move the entire family, including wife Anna (Donna English) and the crusty grandpa (JB Adams) to New York, with everyone in opposition.

The Paper Mill has infused this production with its usual fine production values. The family's Victorian-style house is conveyed with the sort of loving detail that makes you want to immediately move in, and the period costumes have a gorgeous elegance.

The performers handle the corny material with just the right combination of seriousness and levity, with particularly fun work by Patti Mariano as the feisty housekeeper -- her cartwheel during one of the production numbers is an unexpected highlight -- and the adorable Rudin in the Margaret O'Brien role. O'Malley is charming as the love-struck Esther and delivers the trademark songs -- her character has all the good ones -- in lovely fashion.

Director Mark S. Hoebee's staging is well-paced and lively, and Denis Jones' exuberant choreography enlivens such lavish numbers as "Skip to My Lou" and "Banjo," even if they do seem to belong to another show entirely.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS
Presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse
Credits:
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Songs: Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane
Director: Mark S. Hoebee
Choreographer: Denis Jones
Set designer: Rob Bissinger
Costume designer: Thom Heyer
Lighting designer: Charlie Morrison
Sound designer: Randy Hansen
Cast:
Grandpa Prophater: JB Adams
Agnes Smith: Roni Caggiano
Warren Sheffield: Patrick Cummings
Lon Smith: Christian Delcroix
Alonso Smith: Gregg Edelman
Anna Smith: Donna English
John Truitt: Brian Hissong
Katie: Patti Mariano
Esther Smith: Brynn O'Malley
Rose Smith: Julia Osborne
Tootie Smith: Sophie Rudin
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