The financially beleaguered Paper Mill Playhouse is doing what it does best — the family musical. “Meet Me in St. Louis,” based on the durable 1944 MGM Judy Garland film, boasts homespun charm, a few lovely songs and an attractive cast. Despite what would appear to be all the proper ingredients, however, the holiday tuner seldom fulfills its promise, with the exception of a few buoyant moments.
The narrative concerns minor romantic mishaps in the lives of a turn-of-the-century Midwestern family and a pivotal crisis when the family patriarch considers taking a position in New York, warranting a move for his offspring from their beloved St. Louis. It’s all very polite and serves to provide each household member with a defining musical turn.
Brynn O’Malley as Esther Smith, the role that lifted Garland to the peak of her film career, is an appealing sibling, and she sings the shows three best, most enduring songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane: “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
The top edge of O’Malley’s voice is a tad strident, especially notable in the familiar holiday song which loses its subtle grace when she elects to belt out a closing phrase. O’Malley offers a much more sprightly turn with “The Trolley Song,” staged upon a colorful trolley car crowded with young couples.
Brian Hissong as the boy next door is a charming beau, given two fervent love songs in “Over the Bannister” and “You Are for Loving.” The latter is a beautiful romantic declaration once sung by Liza Minnelli in “Best Foot Forward.” Here, it makes a snug fit for the wooing Kensington Avenue neighbors.
One of the show’s most plaintive moments finds Donna English as Mrs. Smith recalling the rush of first love with “You’ll Hear a Bell.” Gregg Edelman is properly boorish and overbearing as Mr. Smith, and JB Adams makes a gruff Gramps.
Precocious little sister Tootie is played by Sophie Rudin with a decided shortage of moppet charm, though she teams with her sisters to bring traditional vaudeville spirit to the old straw hat and cane number. Patti Mariano, as the housekeeper, joins the girls for an Irish jig that makes for a lively interlude, but has little to do with the narrative.
Denis Jones has choreographed a lively square dance set to “Skip to My Lou,” and “Banjo” prompts a spirited cakewalk for the ensemble. Mark S. Hoebee has staged the tuner with resourceful purpose and pace.
Thom Heyer’s period costumes boast a pastel elegance, despite a few of the characters being topped with frightful wigs. Rob Bissinger’s set includes the exterior and interior of the Smith’s cushy Victorian manse, with brief changes to the trolley stop and a ballroom.