by Dennis Brown
Based on the 1944 movie that starred Judy Garland (which in turn was based on a series of short stories by Sally Benson), the stage adaptation is an odd duck. When it debuted at the Muny in 1960, the sheer excitement of a world premiere "right here in St. Louis" blinded a lot of viewers to the fact that the intimate nature of the story is not ideally suited to the vast Muny stage.
But even before seeing this week's staging, I'm willing to bet that it will be an improvement over the Muny's last production in 2004 -- for the simple reason that it would be almost impossible to be worse.
One thing that this week's production should have going for it is
casting. This summer the Muny is hosting lots of really gifted actors.
We've already seen Robert Cuccioli, Dee Hoty, Beth Leavel and John
Schuck. This week's cast includes bright young talents like Brynn
O'Malley as Esther Smith and Max von Essen as the boy next door.
O'Malley and von Essen work constantly in New York and on the road, but
because the nature of the Broadway theater has changed, they haven't
yet enjoyed that big star-making hit. Their loss is our gain, because
they're free to come to St. Louis. And Blake is smart to grab them.
Then there's Lewis J. Stadlen as Grandpa. Stadlen made his bravura
Muny debut two summers as Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! Last
summer he opened the season as Max Bialystock in The Producers (for
which he won a Kevin Kline Award) and closed it as Tevye in Fiddler on
Not only is Stadlen a marvelous stage actor, but he's also
become a first-time author. His memoir, Acting Foolish (BearManor
Media, $21.95), which recounts his career to date, is filled with
hilarious self-deprecating humor and insightful observations. The book
is almost shockingly candid, which means that we are treated to blunt
glimpses of the likes of Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Richard Dreyfuss and
Shelley Winters that play against the sugar-coated puffery behind which
celebrities hide. On the other hand, it's reassuring to read that icons
like Henry Fonda and Zero Mostel are worthy of their reputations.
Publishers don't release many good theater books any more; I fear they think there's not a large enough audience for them. So books like this one are few and far between. Which is all the more reason not to let this one slip past. And here's another bet you don't want to take -- that there are more surefire laughs in Acting Foolish than in Meet Me in St. Louis.