CEDAR RAPIDS – ‘Meet Me in St. Louis‘ is a musical for all seasons, slipping as merrily into a Christmas role as it also springs into the world of summer fare.
That’s what director Casey Prince likes about the show, opening Friday at Theatre Cedar Rapids and playing through Dec. 15.
“There’s probably an argument for it being a fun show to stage during any distinct season of the year,” he says. “The most obvious would be springtime, because it ends in the spring of 1904 at the World’s Fair, and then the next most obvious would probably be during the holidays, because it did introduce songs to the world like ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’”
It’s the story of the Smith family and their trials and triumphs of everyday living — including lessons of young love for the two older girls, and the disappointment they all face over a possible move away from their wonderful city.
“The show basically walks the seasons,” says Prince, 35, of Cedar Rapids. “It starts in the summer, with the kids looking forward to next spring’s World’s Fair.”
It then progresses through Halloween, onto the show’s most memorable scenes revolving around Christmas, winding up to a big finish at the giant international exposition in St. Louis.
- “Meet Me in St. Louis”
- Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
- Friday to Dec. 15; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays
- $20 to $30; several discounts and packages available
- Theatre Cedar Rapids Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
“We really never thought of it for anything other than the holidays,” Prince says, “mostly because so much of the loveliness of the stage production happens during that Christmas season portion of the show.”
Theatre Cedar Rapids will be pulling out all the stops to make this a visual Christmas card, as well as filling the main auditorium with such memorable tunes as “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Trolley Song,” “Skip to My Lou,” and, of course, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Judy Garland starred in the 1944 film version that inspired the 1989 play.
Amy Willett, 23, of Cedar Rapids, is stepping into those famous shoes to play Esther, the 17-year-old Smith daughter who is experiencing her first serious crush.
“Her big motivation for everything in the musical is this boy who’s just moved in next door — John,” says Willett, who got her start at Theatre Cedar Rapids at age 9, playing the lead role of Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
After appearing in other TCR shows and singing dramatic opera roles, she’s enjoying this teenage romp.
“She’s never been in love before,” Willett says of Esther. “She’s on the cusp between girlhood and being a woman. A lot of her motivation for the show is trying to get this boy to notice her and like her. But she also is confident. You can see a little part of the woman come out of her at different points, like when she stands up to people or protects her sisters.
“She’s an interesting role to play, because I have to balance it between girlie and immature and these little spurts of adult woman. … It’s fun to play a bouncy, happy, starry-eyed teenager.”
Onstage isn’t the only place Willett is doing a balancing act. She spent the past year working and studying in Germany and was thrilled to be able to jump back into theater at home. But she’s reminded that timing is everything, since the show plays through mid-December — the busiest season for her job as a manager at The Loft in Coral Ridge Mall.
“I have all these retail hours and I talk a lot during the day,” she says, “then I come to rehearsal,” where her character sings nearly every song and spends the entire show onstage.
Besides the sheer physical endurance, she faces another challenge: stifling the tears during poignant moments in the show.
“A lot of holiday songs and memories I have connected to specific things in my life,” she says. “A lot of Christmas songs are in minor, sad, slower keys and I’ll get emotional sometimes. ”
Having lots of encouragement from the all-ages cast of 27 helps her navigate the twists and turns of life on- and offstage.
“We have so much fun backstage,” she says. “I probably would not have made it this far without the support of the cast.”
And audiences will appreciate plenty of lighthearted moments onstage, as well.
“They’re going to enjoy the fun musical numbers,” she says. “They’re all very catchy tunes. They were originally written for the movie in 1944, so they’re that era’s catchy, bouncy tunes.
“The kids are so funny — Gracie Schulte and Sophie Lindwall. They have some great, great lines,” she says, “and Grandpa as well — Lyle Fisher — has some funny, funny lines that audiences are going to like.
“The costuming is going to be really great and there’s some really fun dance numbers with hooting and hollering. So there’s a lot to enjoy,” Willett says.
“There’s serious numbers and there’s fun moments, there’s sad moments and there’s whoop-de-do dance moments.”
And plenty of time to slow down and reflect, Prince says.
“It’s such a good, basic family story that it’s kind of relatable,” he says. “It’s so lovely to be thrown back into a different era, where to pass the time, kids and families sing together, sit around the piano, sit around the dinner table, play in the yard, read — all of these things.
“We’re all going 90 miles an hour anymore. To even just stop and think about doing one of those things almost feels absurd, because there isn’t time to do that stuff,” Prince says.
“What you see through that slower pace and that focus on the home is really a lovely story of a family.”
Related: ‘Tis the Season for Holiday Shows (Click here for a full list of events in Eastern Iowa)