The Irish Repertory Company has gift-wrapped the 1944 MGM Judy Garland starrer “Meet Me in St. Louis” as holiday fare. Low on production values but high on charm, this mini-musical — boosted by the presence of three song classics — allows viewers to “have yourself a merry little Christmas,” indeed.
The show has a checkered past. A South African husband-and-wife team without Broadway credits conceived this stage adaptation in 1989, overproducing and staging it themselves. (Backing came from the EPI brand of depilatory products, which took over-the-title billing.) A family-friendly libretto was commissioned from the rather unlikely Hugh Wheeler (of “Sweeney Todd”), who died more than two seasons before “St. Louis” reached Broadway.
The multimillion-dollar effort crammed the Gershwin stage with scenery. If memory serves, there was a full-sized trolley car tracked onto a centerstage turntable; during the famous “Trolley Song” (“Clang-clang-clang went the trolley”), the prop turned and turned and turned while the show didn’t move at all. Here the song is staged on a few measly chairs, with the cast of 12 singing the vibrant vocal arrangement like pros. At the Irish Rep, less — much less — turns out to be much, much more.
Film had only three original songs, which remain stunning; in addition to the trolley and Christmas songs, there’s also the exquisite “The Boy Next Door.” (Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote separately but received equal credit; these song hits are by the great melodist Martin, who at 92 is alive and well in Encinitas, Calif.)
The pair provided another dozen or so numbers to fill out the stage version, including at least two winners, the poignant “You Are for Loving” and the rambunctious “Banjo.” The present song list doesn’t exactly correspond with the Broadway version, but no matter.
Charlotte Moore, a.d. of the Irish Rep, made her Broadway musical comedy debut as the mother in the 1989 production. She does a decent job of directing her company on the Rep’s tiny rectangular stage (with seating in front and along one side), keeping things friendly and cheerful. While the scenery and three-person band are minimal, the nostalgic glow is not.
Bonnie Fraser makes a charming heroine; she looks somewhat like Garland did in the film, but has a voice of her own. Colin Donnell does well in the underwritten part of the boy next door. In one scene he dashes off to play baseball, in another to play basketball, in a third he loses his tuxedo and in the fourth he proposes. Even so, he gets full value out of his two songs.
John Hickok (prominent in “Aida” and “Little Women”) brings warmth to the role of the stern but ultimately loving father, while Ashley Robinson as the Princeton-bound brother adds humor and handily leads that banjo song.
Production is sparked by not one but two scene-stealers. Broadway vet George S. Irving — an 84-year-old native of “Oklahoma” (the musical, not the state) — trips onstage doing the hootchie-kootchie (as in the turn-of-the-century title song), and proceeds to chew up what little scenery there is.
He more than meets his match in Gabrielle Piacentile, a slip of a thing who already knows how to slay the house with a mere bat of the eyelashes. Give her a drunk song or a little rag doll named Bridget Rockefeller with a fatal illness, and she’s treacherous. This 8-year-old performer acts and sings wonderfully.
Cynics might wonder how this musical fits with the Rep’s mission of bringing Irish and Irish-American works to the stage; there is a character comedienne who opens the second act with an Irish jig, but that doesn’t exactly fulfill the requirements.
Even so, the Rep has come up with enjoyable family entertainment. Mature audiences and kids are likely to be highly pleased, although this “Meet Me in St. Louis” is not recommended for the “Spring Awakening” crowd.