Monday, December 4, 2017

Faulkner: "Meet Me In St. Louis"

The Christmas Season is upon us with a number of productions across the River Region providing pleasant antidotes to the often mean-spirited and prurient broadcasts on reality television, in the news, and on social media. The latest -- one that hearkens back to an era of good manners, genuine family values and respect for all, a time when a chaste kiss could set romantic hearts aflutter -- is the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's charming musical production of Meet Me In St. Louis.

Adapted from the 1944 film of the same name by Patrick Quentin, with music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blanc, Meet Me In St. Louis is playing to enthusiastic crowds under Angela Dickson's direction.

There's not much of a plot here; the Smith family get caught up in anticipating the opening of the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Officially called the "Louisiana Purchase Exhibition", it was touted as "the greatest exhibition of them all" when it showcased many new inventions and products: electricity in the home, airplanes, automobiles for personal use, x-ray machines, a wireless telephone, incubators for newborns, Dr. Pepper, and even the statue of Vulcan that now stands in Birmingham. -- Though we take these accomplishments for granted today, the actors in this Faulkner production seem to genuinely get caught up in the moment, allowing audiences to share their excitement and feel good doing so.

Individuals in the family have some personal matters to attend to during the build up to the Fair's opening. -- Mr. and Mrs. Smith [ Chris and Kari Kelly] try to keep an orderly household, while their son Lou [Hunter Smith] prepares to go to college, youngest daughter Tootie [Sydney Jones] plays some pretty gruesome episodes for her dolls, daughter Agnes [Lucy Wilson] seeks attention from every quarter, and the older girls. Rose [Catherine Allbritten] and Esther [Brittney Johnston] find romance respectively with Warren [Colby Smith] and John [Brandtley McDonald]. Eccentric Grandpa [Mike DiLaura] and Irish cook Katie [Mattie Earls] round out the principal roles.

There are some predictable misunderstandings among them, all of which will be remedied by the end; and all accomplished through music for which Faulkner has enviable strengths.

A few novelty numbers punctuate the action: "A Touch of the Irish" is led by the strong voiced Ms. Earls; Tootie's "Under the Bamboo Tree" showcases Ms. Jones's talent; and Mr. Smith leads a flashy dance number, "The Banjo". -- The big production numbers "The Trolley Song" and "Meet Me In St. Louis" have a lot of energy and excellent harmonies.

But it is through the quieter songs that the characters become well defined and afford audiences the opportunity to connect with them. -- Ms. Kelly's explanation about knowing when one is in love in "You'll Hear a Bell" makes us listen attentively, and when she reprises it with Mr. Kelly in "You Are for Loving", we understand the depth of a solid marriage. -- Mr. Smith and Ms. Allbritton share a sincere moment in "A Raving Beauty".

The script is skewed to highlight the romance between Esther and John, and Ms. Johnston and Mr. McDonald deliver in spades. Their voices have never been better as the score matches their strengths. Ms. Johnston's dramatic rendering of "The Boy Next Door" is riveting, and when it is reprised with John in Act II, their partnership is ensured. The touching "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is done with simple purity. Their other duets -- "Over the Bannister" and "You Are for Loving" -- are told with such vocal assurance and clarity, and with such intensity of feeling, that the connection between these two actors holds our complete attention.

At the finale, the audience is invited to sing along; and they do. What a lovely way to end the evening on a note of friendship with characters we've known for only a couple of hours, but who seem like family.