by Wendy Rosenfield
FOR THE INQUIRER
After her Sound of Music live television performance Thursday, more than a few Carrie Underwood defenders took to social media to declare, "At least she had the guts to do it live." Bucks County Playhouse's world premiere production, Meet Me in St. Louis: A Live Radio Play, also takes on a beloved classic and -- much like other theaters everywhere, all the time -- performs it live, with far more consistent results, and without the budget and backing of a major television network. So there.
This year marks the second time a Joe Landry radio play has landed on BCP's stage, but the first time the work was commissioned for the company. Last year's adaptation, It's a Wonderful Life, is one of the most often produced plays in the United States. Its formula -- repeated here with a return show-stealing performance by petite dynamo Lauren Molina as both youngest Smith sister Tootie and Irish housemaid Katie and lively direction by Gordon Greenberg (Working) -- has the makings of another success.
Aside from the affection audiences already might feel for the Judy Garland/Vincente Minnelli original, its radio doppelganger piles on meta-nostalgia in the form of a 1946 radio broadcast of the 1944 film, set in the year before the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Nicole Moody's costumes, with swingy cranberry velvet, plaid woolens, and frothy pink tulle, warm up Rob Bissinger's simple set: a backdrop depicting the Smith home throughout the seasons.
Everyone loves a love story, and this production offers one, both onstage, between Esther and the neighbor boy, John Truitt, and also between their real-life counterparts, actors Chelsea and Geoff Packard, who, if slightly older than their roles suggest, still sing out sweetly. Everyone also loves a Foley artist, another advantage of the radio play format, even if he's mostly limited to door slamming and coconut shell hoof-clicking.
Though this could easily be a static affair, Greenberg keeps the action moving onstage and above it, in the loft. The six-person cast dances, plays kazoos, and never flags, not that they get the opportunity. In just one act, packed with Hugh Martin's and Ralph Blane's much-adored songs ("The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), plus several extras from a 1989 Broadway version, the show zing, zing zings through its material.
Sure, it's easier and cheaper to turn on the TV and call up the film on demand, but, as NBC's effort proved, there's just no substitute for live theater performed well.