Judging from the sparse (though appreciative) audience that attended the opening-night performance of the current ACT Inc. rendition of Meet Me in St. Louis, it may be that, for the remainder of this centennial summer anyway, our town has had its fill of the Smith family and their determined efforts to attend the 1904 World's Fair. If so, that's a shame, because this modestly pleasant non-musical offering is a virtual bouquet of small laughs and large smiles.
Why, you might ask, would anyone want to see Meet Me in St. Louis yet again? The classic 1944 MGM movie runs on television all the time, and only three weeks ago the Muny mounted a large-scale stage adaptation of said movie. Isn't that enough already? Well no, not quite, not yet, because the current production is different from anything you've seen heretofore. This infrequently staged script was not adapted from the movie, as was the more popular stage musical; this Meet Me in St. Louis draws directly (or so it purports) from Sally Benson's original 1940s short stories.
Here then is a rare opportunity to compare and contrast musical and non-musical approaches to the same source material. The current production reminds one that Meet Me in St. Louis concerns four daughters, and that each is integral to the action. Obvious, you say? Well, it should be. But because the movie was tailored as a vehicle for Judy Garland, the role of Esther was inflated at the expense of some of her siblings. Here, all four girls are front and center. While Stephanie Patton (Tootie) and Natalie Sannes (Agnes) have fun with the two youngsters, it's a special pleasure to watch the onstage rapport that develops between the elder two. As Rose, Melissa Crowley fulminates with sass and spunk. Colleen Backer's Esther is a captivating charmer with a subversively coy smile. When these two teenagers are scheming together, Crowley and Backer make for a winning duo. In addition, Steve Callahan is effective as their long-suffering father, a well-intentioned man constantly surrounded and harassed by women.
This little-performed script was written years ago by Christopher Sergel, a technician-playwright who made a career out of adapting well-known books (Cheaper by the Dozen, Up the Down Staircase and, most successfully, To Kill a Mockingbird) into uninspired yet efficient stage plays. In restricting his action to the Smith family's living room (which he sometimes confused for a crowded lobby at Union Station), Sergel built a script out of minutiae. Trolley cars and Christmas parties give way to chicken hearts and water bombs.
In Benson's original stories (there were twelve in all, and they chronicled the dozen months between June 1903 and May 1904), the father's impending job transfer from St. Louis to Manhattan was just one of a dozen unconnected plots. No big deal, it was dealt and dispensed with in a few pages. Film director Vincente Minnelli chose to make it a big deal in the movie, and Sergel -- knowing a solid plot device when he saw one -- structured his entire script around the dire threat of that move.
But then the playwright made a crucial error: He didn't trust his source material. Because the Benson stories lack an obvious conventional villain, Sergel decided to add one. He fabricated a foolish crisis that is rooted in neither the stories nor the movie. Ironically, the film also created a villain, but he wasn't a heavy with a black mustache. In the movie the villain was progress, as symbolized by callous, impersonal New York City. In his failure to appreciate that nuance, Sergel's script ends up being true to neither Benson nor Minnelli.
Nevertheless, for the most part the ACT Inc. production serves up generous portions of innocuous fun. And it moves. There are three acts, two intermissions, and the entire evening only lasts 105 minutes. Could the playwright have dug deeper? Yes. Could he have been truer to the spirit of Benson's stories while cramming in fewer incidents of his own devising? Yes. But in its wry depiction of that eternal battle of man vs. wife, daughters and maid, once again Meet Me in St. Louis refreshes and charms.