Theater Review: William Peace Theatre Production of ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ Steeped in Nostalgia and Charm

Julia Walsh and the cast of the William Peace Theatre production of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS

It was 75 years ago that the film Meet Me in St. Louis premiered starring Judy Garland. The movie musical introduced the world to such standards as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Trolley Song,” and the title song.  Nearly 45 years after the film was released, Meet Me in St. Louis was turned into a Broadway musical.

The show tells the story of the Smith family, a typical family of five (plus Grandpa Prophater) living in St. Louis in 1903, the year leading up to Louisiana Purchase Exposition. It is on stage, just as it was on screen, a feel-good, musical romantic comedy, the kind that became synonymous with the name Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

My father introduced me to Meet Me in St. Louis when I was about nine years old. The Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Miami was showing it on the big screen, and I was enchanted the minute Judy Garland sang the first note of “The Boy Next Door.” Most memorable to me was the fact that the theater had installed old airplane seats and I couldn’t see the screen well, so my dad propped me on his knee so I wouldn’t miss a minute. It’s memories like this one, as well as seeing The Sound of Music at Radio City Music Hall a few years earlier, that rooted my love of theater. Years later, I did see the Broadway production with my mom. It was good, but nothing can hold a candle to the original movie version.

The William Peace Theatre production of Meet Me in St. Louis brims with enthusiasm and heart, and that is what makes it work. Julia Walsh stars as Esther, the part made famous by Garland. While her performance feels a little self-serving at times, Walsh breezes through the vocals effortlessly. Last seen in Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of Pippin is Deanna Richards as Esther’s sister Rose and Jesse Farmer as Rose’s suitor Warren Sheffield. Richards delivers the strongest performance in this production and proves she not only has the vocal chops but also the acting ability to carry off any role. And Farmer proves once again to be a charismatic performer, honing his skills to become a formidable triple threat. Notable too are some strong performances by Bryce Shipman as Mr. Smith, Nicholas A Davis as John Truitt, Molly Jarman as Katie, and the scene-stealing youngster Ursula Furnas. Furnas, a sixth-grader at West Millbrook Middle School plays Tootie, the youngest Smith child, a role that earned Margaret O’Brien an Academy Award.

Director Amy White keeps the show moving at a brisk pace, sans any clumsy scene transitions as to break the momentum. She also choreographs some delightful dance numbers, including “Skip To My Lou” and The Banjo,” which feature the entire ensemble. Musically, under the direction of Matt Hodge, the cast is on point. However, due to occasional acoustic and mic problems, the eight-piece band sometimes drowns out the individual performers.

Meet Me in St. Louis is family fare at its finest, steeped in nostalgia and overflowing with charm. And while this college production is not perfect and relies on performances over production values to entertain, it does spotlight some promising young talent and is a perfect vehicle for parents (like mine) wanting to introduce their children to musical theater.

Meet Me in St. Louis runs through Sunday at William Peace University. For more information visit https://wputheatre.ticketleap.com/meet-me-in-st-louis/ or the RDU on Stage Calendar page.

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