CEDAR RAPIDS — Young Sophie Lindwall, a fourth grader making her performance debut, sets the tone for the Theatre Cedar Rapids production of “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Her character, Tootie, opens the show — singing the title number and bantering with the mailman — and she is simply charming from her first moment. Under the direction of TCR Executive Director Casey Prince, the production, which opened Friday night (11/23/12) for a large audience, is infused with charm from top to bottom.
Based on the classic film of the same name, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is the story of the Smith family during the 10 months leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. The three older children, Lon (Andy Lesieur), Rose (Rebecca Hauschild), and Esther (Amy Willett), have romances to sort out. The younger children, Agnes (Gracie Schulte) and Tootie (Lindwall), are mischief-makers of the first order.
The family’s life is upended when Mr. Smith (Greg Smith) announces that they are moving to New York. The story’s threads come together over what seems to be the family’s last Christmas in St. Louis.
By and large, the female members of the cast turn in stronger performances than their male counterparts. Hauschild and Willett both sing beautifully, and Willett shines on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the show’s emotional centerpiece. Schulte and Lindwell steal every scene in which they appear — singing, dancing, and causing trouble with gusto.
Lisa Wipperling comes into her own as Mrs. Smith when she sings “You’ll Hear a Bell,” a song about falling in love. Tracie Hodina is delightful as Katie, the Smiths’ maid, and her witty performance of “A Touch of the Irish” is a winning start to the second act.
Among the men, Smith offers up the best all-around performance portraying the inflexible, baffled, well-meaning, misunderstood father. His rich singing voice is perfect for “A Day in New York,” in which he tries to convince his family to get behind the move, and the tender “Wasn’t It Fun,” which he sings with Wipperling.
Lesieur, together with the others portraying Smith children, is delightful during “Whenever I’m With You.” He also saves the second act ball scene, which drags just a bit, with a spirited performance of the novelty number “The Banjo,” supported by the energetic ensemble.
Derek Easton has designed an impressive and versatile set. It’s a smidgen cramped in spots, but in general, it serves the story well. To increase the playing space, the pit — home to a good band — is covered except for one section in the center through which conductor Alex Shields can guide the singers. The only downside of this strategy is that the hole adds a distracting whiff of danger to the proceedings. Will they “Skip to My Lou” right into the pit? Will the trolley derail in an unfortunate way?
The trolley itself is impressive and the cast whirls and twirls it to great effect during “The Trolley Song,” which Willett belts out to bring the first act to a rousing close.
The second act didn’t come to quite so strong a conclusion. A couple of technical glitches — one with the set and another with the audio — undermined the family’s arrival at the World’s Fair. But a strong reprise of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (complete with audience sing-along) and a final sendoff from Lindwall ensured that the audience left with a warm glow at evening’s end.
What: “Meet Me in St. Louis”
Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
When: Through Dec. 15; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $20 to $30; several discounts and packages available; Theatre Cedar Rapids Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org