The Muny's 86th season opened this week with a highly unusual double bill. For the curtain raiser, the theater offered a one-man performance best described as "the Paul Blake Amateur Hour." The Muny's normally shy executive producer was cajoled into prancing out onstage to welcome the audience by delivering an uncanny impersonation of a producer drowning in his own ego. Blake has this chillingly entertaining act down cold. Even when bestowing credit on others, he has a way of letting the viewer know that Paul Blake and no one else is responsible for everything good that happens at the theater in Forest Park, onstage and off.
This astonishing exercise in narcissism was followed by a little ditty called Meet Me in St. Louis -- which, in its own way, is as unique a piece of stagecraft as was the curtain raiser. It just takes a few more people to bring it off.
One could argue that Meet Me in St. Louis has had the longest tryout in musical-theater history. Ever since it premiered at the Muny in 1960, it has been an ongoing work-in-progress. No two productions are ever the same. Back in 1960 the show had a script by Sally Benson, author of the original New Yorker short stories upon which the 1944 Judy Garland movie was based. With each new Muny production, Benson's script kept getting reworked. Then it got junked completely when the musical went to Broadway in 1989. The current offering is a trimmed-down version of that unsuccessful venture.
Meanwhile, new old songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (some from their 1941 Broadway hit Best Foot Forward) keep getting tossed in and taken out of the mix as if they were ingredients in a salad. And once a song does find its way into the show, that's no guarantee it will stay put. In the current version, songs that used to be in Act One are now in Act Two, and vice versa. You'd think that after 44 years, someone could figure out how to get Meet Me in St. Louis right.
Instead, this Paul Blake-directed version just goes through the motions. All the famous dialogue is intact. The three perennially popular songs ("The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") are here, of course -- not to mention the title song, which is sung ad infinitum throughout the evening. But what's missing from this stage production are the very components that made the movie a classic to begin with: texture, and attention to detail. In a word, direction. There was no shepherd here to help the actors find the truthful family moments. The only directorial note seems to have been, "Play it out front."
Does this mean that the current Muny opener doesn't work? Of course not. It works in fits and starts, but on a completely different level from the film. The Muny is a fine-tuned machine geared to mass entertainment. It functions best when it can fill the stage with arm-swaying, toe-tapping bodies. Here the high points occur in Act One, when the singing and dancing chorus perform "Skip to My Lou" and "The Trolley Song." And this week anyway, in happy contrast to last summer (when, for instance, the Chicago Trocadero nightclub in Show Boat looked like a ghost town), the stage is awash with bodies.
During this nostalgic World's Fair centennial summer, the Muny had to produce Meet Me in St. Louis. In a knowing nod to the past, they've even added three nights to the regularly scheduled one-week run. The city's quasi-official musical is on view for ten performances, as was the world premiere in 1960. (Technically, that debut production ran for eleven performances, but one night was bought out by Famous-Barr as a gift to its employees. Gone are the days.)
But on occasion -- when the Muny's unique revolving stage kicked into gear to gently spin that trolley, or when the orchestra members' umbrellas popped open to protect their musical instruments from the show-stopping rain, and of course when colorful 1904 World's Fair fireworks filled the sky -- the evening was a felicitous reminder of the glory days of yore.