- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

In Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s winsome production of “Meet Me In St. Louis,” it is perpetually 1903, and the Smith sisters forever wear the shirtwaist dresses and crisp grosgrain bows in their tumbling hair, giving them that enviable Gibson Girl silhouette.

It is a time of men in banded straw hats and white flannel trousers, of mothers in upswept coiffures and fathers in stiff collars and three-piece suits. The phone is a newfangled invention, and folks just love traveling by trolley car. How lovely it is once in a while to drift back and think what it was like to live in a time when a long-distance telephone call is a monumental occurence and the social event of the year is the upcoming World’s Fair.

“Meet Me in St. Louis” captures all the sweeping changes and gentle constancy of turn-of-the-century America with lollipop sweetness. This isn’t a show for the sugar-sensitive, as there is not one dollop of cynicism or subtext in this musical about a household filled with four lively daughters.

The stage musical is based on the 1944 Vincente Minnelli film starring a fresh-faced Judy Garland as 17-year-old Esther Smith, the star’s eyes dewy and unclouded by the years of drug addiction and alcoholism that would plague her in subsequent decades. A young Margaret O’Brien starred as the spirited younger sister Tootie, and the cast also included Mary Astor as the mother.

The MGM musical introduced the world to the holiday standard “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” sung by Miss Garland to Miss O’Brien. The show also includes Miss Garland’s signature tune, “The Trolley Song” (which was also appropriated by her daughter, Liza Minnelli), “Under the Bamboo Tree” and “The Boy Next Door.” The musical version does justice to our memories of the movie, as well as giving audiences the visceral thrill of live performance. It is a charming idealization of well-to-do family life and of the “boy next door” theme.

Esther (AK Brink) has fallen in love with her new neighbor, John Truitt (Greg Etling), while older sister Rose (Janine Gulisano) is trying to get a proposal out of her stodgy beau, Warren Sheffield (Shawn Kettering). Meanwhile, their younger sisters, Tootie (Katie Glass, alternating with Rachel Petti) and Agnes (Paige Decker, alternating with Hannah Williams), are holy terrors, precursors of the shockingly modern young women of the Jazz Age they were born to be.

The twin love stories unfold over the course of a year, using the upcoming World’s Fair as bookends.

Things get dire when Father (David Bosley Reynolds) informs the family that they are leaving their dear St. Louis for New York right after the holidays — a merry little Christmas indeed.

Miss Brink may not possess the unearthly voice of Miss Garland, but her singing is clear and true, ripe with innocence and yearning. She is also a skilled actress, handling the house-party scene where she and John linger over dimming the gaslights with a brilliantly truthful expression of budding romance.

She makes you believe she is a girl in love from head to toe.

Miss Gulisano also has her moments as Rose, a girl perhaps not as clever and earnest as Esther, but lovely nonetheless. She wins you over with her efforts to cover up her insecurities by tossing around French phrases, a la Miss Piggy.

The older women of the household may not be in the throes of first love, but Lani Howe possesses great dignity and grace as Mother, and Jill Shullenbarger shakes up the proceedings with her jovial portrayal of the plain-speaking Irish maid Katie.

As usual, Toby’s exceeds your expectations of what can be done in the round at a dinner theater. In this production, it’s a fully operational trolley car and a scene in which the company spins around on skates. Sam Huffer’s fancy costumes feature the sherbet colors, band-box stripes and lacy florals of the era. Like the time it depicts, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is swimming in warmth and sentiment. But come on in, the water’s fine.

***

WHAT: “Meet Me in St. Louis” by Hugh Wheeler

WHERE: Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, Md.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sundays to Saturdays (doors open at 6 p.m.), 1 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays (doors open at 10:30 a.m.). Through Feb. 8.

TICKETS: $31 to $39

PHONE: 301/596-6161

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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