The turn of the 20th century offered optimism about the American Century. St. Louis was a gateway from the East Coast to the West. Thomas Edison was about to light up the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis with a display of his invetion of the light bulb, which would tranform cities from gas lights and dark allies to illuminated skylines that we can see from space stations a century later. The middle class was emerging from the factories of the industrial revolution, in the suburbs of Smiths, Jones, and Larsons. Gosh, this all seems so quaint comparied to Sequesters, GLBTG marriages, drone attacks, assault rifle bans or rights, and universal health care issues of today. It was refreshing, on a Memorial Day weekend, to reminisc or maybe romantisize, about simpler times in the Fresta Valley Christian School’s spring musical, Meet Me in St. Louis.
Meet Me in St. Louis occurs over a ten month period prior to the World’s Fair. The acts follow the seasons, with anticipation of the Fair in the Spring of 1903, a summer of the two elder daughters falling in love, a Fall of sadness after their father announces that they will be moving from St. Louis to New York where he will be heading up the law firm’s office, to Winter of farewells to their friends and familiar surroundings. Alonzo (Daniel Wickert) and Anna (Casey Wilfong) Smith’s household includes Lon (Brett Sumrall), the older brother who will go to Princeton in the Fall, Rose (Abigail Cress), the elder daughter who has graduated from school, Esther (Abby Clark) who is a senior in high school, two younger daughters, Agnes (Brittany Worsham) and Tootie (Bethany Worsham), who are into tom-boy pranks, and Grandpa (Ben Freer). Katie (Susanna Buckley) is their housekeeper, and as influential on the family as the parents. In fact, she probably knows more about what each member is doing, any other member.
Joining the Smith family will be suitors for Rose and Esther. Warren (David Hogan) will return from college in New York for the summer, spending most of it getting a cold reception from Rose, who thinks that playing hard to get will keep his attention. John (Ryan Strong) is the boy-next-door, who catches Esther’s eye as easily as a baseball or basketball. Lon will introduce a young woman from New York, Lucille (Hannah Fitzpatrick) at the Christmas Eve ball. Rose and Esther view her as a rival until they meet her and realize that she is so looking forward to their moving to New York. In circles around these couples are the postmen, motormen, party guests, trolley passengers, and awkward young men of St. Louis (sorry, I shall not list two dozen of their names for the sake of space). Providing the musical atmosphere is the orchestra (yet another baker’s-dozen names).
The two primary set elements (David, Daniel and Ron King, Heather Woodward, Regina and Rachel Dodson) include the front porch, warmed with goldenrod yellow clapboard and a wreath that changes with each season, and the front parlor, wallpapered in garden green with white trim. Addition scenes are brought out on folding flats, with the trolley, ballroom, and eventually the World’s Fair, which envelops us with string lights around the auditorium space and an illuminated Ferris wheel. The porch provides an intimate space for greetings and courting of Rose and Esther. The parlor provides for family gatherings, and public parties.
The costume department and seamstresses (Lisa and Amanda Clark, Kristie Beals, Liz Phillips) must have had their hands full outfitting the large cast, including multiple costume changes for the principle players. Victorian era dresses and suits were complicated too, with multiple layers of lace, and bow ties (did those young men really learn to tie those?). Special mention must be given to the hair and make up crew (Anna Myers, Natalie and Gabrielle Beals, Jessica Hickling, Leah Papadolopoulos, Lisa Clark) for all the springy curls on the young women’s heads. Having seen several of the actresses perform at the recent Spring Concert in Petersburg, we know that they were not as tightly wound a few weeks ago. But, Tootie’s braids and Agnes’ tubular curls took them right to childhood frolics, as did Rose’s and Esther’s lengthy locks attracted the young men who would accompany them into adulthood.
All of these images bring us to the singing, which Grandpa leads the family in, with the opening tune of “Meet Me in St. Louis”. He represents the family, which sings for pleasure in harmony. His voice is light and cheerful . Esther has most of the show stopper numbers, with “The Boy Next Door”, “The Trolley Song”, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, as well as the courting duet “You are For Loving” when John declares his intent. Esther’s voice is clear and strong, while John is finding a voice other than one on the ball field. Anna gives mother advice, with reserved voice, to her daughters in “You’ll Hear a Bell”, as she recalls how she and Alonzo met. Later, she and Alonzo recall their youth in “Wasn’t It Fun”.
With the large ensemble numbers which I referred to earlier, there is a lot of opportunity for dancing. Sometimes dances are spontaneous hoofing in the parlor and trolley stop, other times formal square dancing and waltzing. The choreographers (Gabriella Beals and Leah Popadopoulos) must have been busy teaching basic steps and blocking all the couples and groups to move in a coordinated manner on stage. They worked particularly well when Esher fills her dance card with three awkward men (Nichols Stamps, Jansen Beals, and Nathanael Witt), for clumsy dancing in a crowd is actually more difficult to pull of (safely) than neat footwork.
In addition to stepping back to the basics of family life and love for an evening, there was a delight in the post curtain call farewells to the seniors. There were the flowers presented to their parents in the audience. Abby Clark’s gift to her mother of framed posters of all the productions that she had coordinated the costumes. And, Daniel Wickert’s benediction. Yet, as these seniors will move on to college, work, and family duties, we may well see their names with asterisks in future programs, indicating alumni who return to help in productions, or we might see them in the audiences. The Smith family is about generations supporting each other in life. This is not just a stage concept.