Review: The sounds (as in radio) of ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’

 In Bucks County Playhouse's

In Bucks County Playhouse's "Meet Me in St. Louis: A Live Radio Play," from left: Lauren Molina, Garth Kravitz, Chelsea Packard and Victoria Cook. (Photo courtesy of Mandee Kuenzle)

You could sit in the audience at Bucks County Playhouse’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” and never look up from the floor, and you’d still have a good time. This particular version is called “Meet Me in St. Louis: A Live Radio Play,” and it would be great on the air, but it’s even better as theater. So please, look at the stage.

The iconic 1944 film became a Broadway show with added songs in 1989, and it’s that stage version that Joe Landry has adapted as live radio musical. Landry also adapted the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a live radio play, and it’s been produced a few times in the region (including last year at the Playhouse) over the past few holiday seasons.

Both shows share two benefits, one for the producers and the other for audiences: They needn’t be staged full-blown, with costume changes, lots of scenery and the like, because as radio performances, they are essentially concert versions of bigger enterprises. And turning them into radio productions gives the shows an old-fashioned character that nowadays seems like a novel one.

You need only look to the left side of the stage at Bucks County Playhouse to see what I mean. There, at the sound-effects table, the cast manufactures footsteps and naying horses and all manner of sounds that come across as real, or as cartoonish versions of something real. Most of the cast members take turns and one of them, Lauren Molina, even plays the cello during some numbers to accompany the cast and music director Phil Reno’s piano.

Those numbers are standards from the film and stage versions of “Meet Me in St. Louis” – “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” (ding-ding-ding goes the trolley … you know it), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the like. And of course, the song “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

It’s charming and melodic and altogether carefree. It’s also true to the Broadway version by Hugh Wheeler with a score by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, and to the film. (And I’m guessing to Sally Benson’s stories that appeared in New York Magazine, and were the basis for the movie.) Several cast members play different characters – with distinct voices for each, of course, given this is supposed to be radio. But the players also sing richly and with style – Molina, Victoria Cook and especially Chelsea Packard are the prime examples.

They play the radio actors who portray the three daughters of the Smith family, St. Louis residents in 1903, just before the world’s fair took over that city and the nation’s imagination. Molina is wonderful as a little kid, and Cook and Packard each shine as the older sisters who are either pursued by a guy or dying to pursue one. Garth Kravits is their brother, headed to Princeton, and Jay Russell plays both their dad and grandfather. That boy next door who makes the actress Chelsea Packard swoon in song is, in real life, her husband, Geoff Packard.

They’re all swell, under the snappy direction of Gordon Greenberg, who also staged last year’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The handsome radio-studio set, on two levels, is by Jared W. Rutherford and there’s a little local script editing for this production: The station broadcasting “Meet Me in St. Louis” is supposed to be the departed AM station in Doylestown, WBUX. The little station would have been lucky, indeed, to be able to do so in real life._

“Meet Me in St. Louis: A Live Radio Play” runs at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope, through Dec. 29. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.

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