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Talented cast and crew meet in 'St. Louis'

Modesto Performing Arts' "Meet Me in St. Louis." This big musical is about romance and a family sad to be leaving St. Louis for New York in the early 1900s. In this trolley scene (L-R) are, Jessica Savelli and Leah Bateman, Melissa Riner, Isaak Olson and Crystal Backoff on the right. (Steve Kosko / The Modesto Bee)
Modesto Performing Arts' "Meet Me in St. Louis." This big musical is about romance and a family sad to be leaving St. Louis for New York in the early 1900s. In this trolley scene (L-R) are, Jessica Savelli and Leah Bateman, Melissa Riner, Isaak Olson and Crystal Backoff on the right. (Steve Kosko / The Modesto Bee)

If it's wholesome, family-friendly entertainment you want, look no further than Modesto Performing Arts' "Meet Me in St. Louis."

The musical centers on the Smiths, an early-1900s version of the Huxtables or the Bradys. This chipper bunch sings songs around the piano, hosts square-dancing parties in the living room and entertains friends with dance routines.

Director Paul Tischer's lively production, which launches MPA's 41st summer season, is filled with fresh-faced young people who look like they are having the time of their lives on stage.

Though there were some problems with squawking microphones and out-of-tune notes at Sunday afternoon's opening performance at Modesto High School, this community-theater production exuded so much joy that it was hard to resist.

Based on the 1944 movie starring Judy Garland, the Hugh Martin/Ralph Blane musical follows the Smiths from spring to winter in the months leading up to the 1904 World's Fair. The stage show was nominated for a 1990 Tony Award for best musical.

Melissa Riner, a 17-year-old graduate of Big Valley Christian High School, is radiantly beautiful and a delight as teen daughter Esther, the Garland role. She mimics Garland's distinctive phrasing in her solos, which include the show's biggest hit, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the upbeat "Trolley Song" and the gorgeous ballad "The Boy Next Door." While she sometimes misses notes, her voice is pleasant and clear.

Esther is the center of most of the scenes, whether she's volunteering opinions about family issues or flirting with the neighbor boy (charming Chris Hamby).

Crystal Backoff, who also occasionally struggles with intonation, is spunky and prideful as oldest sister Rose, the other star of the show. She loves playing hard to get with local boy Warren (elegant Louis Jones) but secretly hopes he will propose.

Jessica Savelli and Leah Bateman are rambunctious as adorable younger sisters Agnes and Tootie, while Isaak Olson is the life of every party as only son Lon.

Olson confidently steps into the spotlight as soloist in "The Banjo," a peppy number that oddly doesn't feature the instrument at all. Shelly Coito choreographs an upbeat dance that gives Olson and a large crowd of young people a workout.

The strongest vocalist in the show is Joe Rykert, who plays the gruff but soft-hearted father. His rendition of "A Day in New York" is one of the most appealing songs in the show.

Nancy O'Bryan is quiet and kind as as the mother, while Lewis Woodward is playful as the young-at-heart grandfather. Rounding out the Smith household is feisty Linda Scheller as the Irish maid, Katie.

The orchestra, led by musical director Darrel Lingenfelter, has some rough patches but generally provides smooth accompaniment.

Tischer's sets and props are as attractive as always, from the Smiths' rose-colored Victorian home to the cheery trolley that rolls on and off stage. The cast looks lovely in the long dresses, hats and suits provided by costume designer Gini Vyborney.

Tischer closes the show on a magical note with a starry sky and a string of electric lights brightening up the stage. Young children through seniors should find much to love about this uplifting, encouraging production.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or lmillegan@modbee.com.

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