Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Old-timey musical vivid in Abrams

‘Meet Me in St. Louis'

ABRAMS, Wis. - Tock-tick, tock-tick, tock-tick. That’s a clock turning back. It’s tocking-ticking for Abrams Spotlight Productions Inc. as the troupe presents the historical musical “Meet Me in St. Louis” in Byng Community Theatre.

The show’s story turns back to the clock more than a century ago, to the 10 months leading up to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. In a nifty bit at the end of the performance – this is not giving anything away – film footage of the real fair is projected on a screen. The images are grainy, but there the majestic buildings are, as the event harkens to such advances as a wonder of the time – outdoor electrical lighting.

The style of show’s music also is of a bygone, romantic era. The tunes challenge the singers a bit, though not counting the really famous songs. Those are “The Trolley Song” (… Clang, clang, clang went the trolley), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (one of the all-time top 10) and the catchy “Meet Me in St. Louis” (pronounced “louie” not “lewis”) that’s sung a bunch of times.

Joke in the show: The father in story’s central family is waiting to be served supper. A maid arrives with a plate of corned beef. “Meat!” the father says exuberantly… and everybody around the table breaks into singing “Meet me in St. Louis, Louis.”

In the story, there’s fun to be had as two sisters set about to land beaus as the exciting world’s fair approaches and their father rules the roost with gruff firmness (he thinks). It’s a heady time in St. Louis and the Smith family. Something’s always happening among the five children from college age (a son) through four girls down to pre-school.

Brightness dominates the set backdrops and clothing – especially at the ending.

The tone of the show is warm nostalgia, with little bumps for “crisis” moments.

Director Elizabeth Jolly and the mixed-age cast tap into the family aura of back when. The entourage is into the energy that happens in a family with five children.

Side note: Whether the following effect was on purpose or because of the theater’s sound system is hard to pin down: The music especially at the opening sounds like is from an old, old record made in 1903 or 1904 – the years that the show covers. The sound seems distant and muted and old.

Rose Smith (Janet Koehne) gets the story rolling. The eldest daughter, she is playing hard to get with Warren Sheffield (Tim Rutten-Kemprees), the town’s rich kid, because Rose wants him to express his affection for her. Warren doesn’t catch her drift.

Esther Smith (Megan Mertens), Janet’s slightly younger sister, is casting lures at the young man next door, John Truitt (Hayden Blau). John also is slow to rise to the bait. The story mostly turns around Esther as the model of “the girl next door” – sweet, innocent, charming. Megan Mertens plays Esther that way, with her voice like a brush of a feather in singing songs such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in wispy ways.

Meantime, the younger sisters, Tootie (Sydney Surber) and Agnes (Kaelyn Blau), get into assorted mischief as their brother, Lon (Preston Pelegrin), heads off to Princeton after an eventful going-away party.

The father (Josh Blau) thinks he has control over his percolating family, but the mother (Peggy Sopata) knows better as she holds firm to her love for him going back to the start, represented in the song “You’ll Hear a Bell.”

This and that:

+ Clothes help create the times-past aura, especially the women’s with colors ranging from muted pastels to brilliant, bold green and red – and with abundant frills. There’s quick-change artistry going on behind some scenes, too.

+ Dance is a factor, with the ensemble and principals springing into such production numbers as “Skip to My Lou” and “The Banjo.”

+ In this era when 95 percent of American adults own a cell phone (actual statistic), it’s interesting to see a wood-frame wall telephone that requires an approval by way of an operator for an expensive long-distance call from New York to St. Louis – and having to raise one’s voice for hearing by the person on the other end of the line (a true line, a wire connection, instead of simply through the air).  

I caught Sunday afternoon’s matinee, which was well attended and which generated positive reactions through and through.


Creative: Music and lyrics – Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane; book – Hugh Wheeler, based on “The Kensington Stories” by Sally Benson and the motion picture “Meet Me in St. Louis;” director – Elizabeth Jolly; assistant director, choreographer – Ali Carlson; musical director – Cate Kopkey; costume designer, technical director – Debra Jolly; set designer – David Jolly; lighting designer – Debra Jolly; set decoration – Julie Muenster, Kelly Klein; make-up – Preston Pelegrin, Abby Graglia

Cast: Esther Smith – Megan Mertens; Rose Smith – Janet Koehne; Lon Smith – Preston Pelegrin; Mrs. Smith – Peggy Sopata; Mr. Smith – Josh Blau; Agnes Smith – Kaelyn Blau; Tootie Smith – Sydney Surber; Grandpa – Bill Koehne; Katie – Julie Muenster; John Truitt – Hayden Blau; Warren Sheffield – Tim Rutten-Kempees; Iceman/Mailman – Jim Klein; Chorus/Lucille – Kelly Klein; Chorus/Eve – Ellie Finger; Chorus/PeeWee Drummond – Audryn Just; Chorus – Josephine Sieber, Victoria Athey, Brooke LeMense, Betsy Finger, Olivia Shelly, James Sopata

Musicians: Piano – Cate Kopkey; trombone – Danny Smith; trumpet – Gregory Schliep, Dan Marbes; clarinet – Jennifer Cassel, Timberly Marbes; tuba – Jonathan Cullingford; saxophone – Autumn Falk; drums – Jim Hatlak, Jeff Just; flute – Cameron Mercier

Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Dec. 8, 1 and 7 p.m. Dec. 9, 1 p.m. Dec. 10

Info: abramsspotlightproductions.com


Musical selections

Act I

Overture – Orchestra

“Meet Me in St. Louis” – The Smith Family Octet

“The Boy Next Door” – Esther

“Meet Me in St. Louis” (Reprise) – Tootie, Agnes, Esther, Rose and Grandpa

“Whenever I’m with You” – The Smith Family Octet

“You’ll Hear a Bell” – Mrs. Smith

“A Raving Beauty” – Warren and Rose

“Skip to My Lou” – Lon, Warren, Rose, Esther and Chorus

“Drunk Song” – Tootie

“Under the Bamboo Tree” – Tootie, Agnes, Esther

“Over the Banister” – John with Esther

“The Trolley Song” – Esther and Chorus

Act II

Entr’acte – Instrumental

“A Touch of the Irish” – Katie with Rose and Esther

“The Boy Next Door” (Reprise) – John and Esther

“A Day in New York” – Mr. Smith, Mrs. Smith, Rose, Esther, Katie and Grandpa

“You’ll Hear a Bell” (Reprise) – Mrs. Smith

“Wasn’t It Fun?” – Mr. and Mrs. Smith

“Christmas Waltz” – Orchestra

“The Banjo” – Lon and Chorus

“Auld Lang Syne” – Orchestra

“You Are for Loving” – John and Esther

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Esther

“The Trolley Song” (Reprise) – Chorus

“Meet Me in St. Louis” (Reprise) – All


NEXT: “Singin’ in the Rain,” March 16-18, 23-25.

VENUE: The 182-seat Byng Community Theater is located in the former St. Louis Catholic Church. Seating is in padded wooden pews. NOTE: In the program for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” troupe president Bill Koehne reports the pews are about to be replaced by “much more comfortable chairs” and will be in place for the next production. Roman arched windows from the former church are have been uncovered, revealing eight stained-glass windows. Wooden walls and the ceiling panels made of compressed cardboard are painted black. With the production of “Steel Magnolias,” gone are geometric decorations and, on the walls, displays of cast-signed Abrams Spotlight Productions show posters. In the back of the theater is a concession area that serves pop, popcorn, candy and light alcoholic beverages that may be consumed in the theater.

THE PEOPLE: The theater was founded by director, actor and former troupe president Brandon Byng and his great-aunt, Nancy Byng, who died in 2011.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words)” and the award-winning “Real, Honest Sailing with a Great Lakes Captain,” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

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