Meet Me in St. Louis

The 1944 MGM film musical Meet Me in St. Louis, based on The Kensington Stories, Sally Benson's articles about turn-of-the-century family life, was created as a vehicle for Judy Garland in the role of the dreamy yet determined daughter, Esther Smith. The rest of the Smith family — with the exception of Margaret O'Brien's bloodthirsty Tootie, the littlest Smith girl — were no match for Garland's dynamism and faded into the background. The material was adapted for the Broadway stage in 1989, but its gentle charms were lost in the cavernous Gershwin Theatre and the run was a short one.

In the Irish Repertory Theatre's current revival, the intimate appeal of the film is restored. The focus is evenly divided among the middle-class Smiths as they grapple with issues such as growing up, experiencing first love, and possibly losing their home, all during the course of a single year leading up to the St. Louis World's Fair. As she did with Finian's Rainbow, IRT artistic director Charlotte Moore, who played the mother in the Broadway production of St. Louis, manages to fit a full-scale production into a performing space the size of a Manhattan studio apartment. It never seems crowded, even when the entire clan is on stage for a dinner scene or during choreographer Barry McNabb's elegant dance numbers.

As Esther, Bonnie Fraser wisely does not attempt to compete with the ghost of Garland. Instead, she finds her own way into the character, emphasizing the girl's practical side when faced with such troubles as having no date for the Christmas ball or the dread news that the family may have to move to New York (horrors!). She also places an individual stamp on such classics as "The Trolley Song," "The Boy Next Door," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Gabrielle Piacentile gives Tootie the nasty edge that this pintsized mischief-maker needs, as does her real-life sibling Danielle Piacentile as Tootie's slightly older sister, the equally naughty Agnes. Merideth Kaye Clark provides the haughty elder sister, Rose, with a vinegary temper, and Ashley Robinson as Lon, the sole male Smith offspring, gives spring to his number "The Banjo." Veteran character actor George S. Irving is cuddly and warm as the sage grandpa, and Sara Pfisterer and John Hickok are the solid backbone of the show as the steady parents. Doug Boes, Becky Barta, Kerry Conte, and Colin Donnell round out this amiable ensemble.

Tony Straiges' simple set, Brian Nason's creative lighting, and Tracy Christensen's detailed costumes complete this loving valentine to a bygone era.

Presented by and at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC. Dec. 14-Feb. 18. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 727-2737. Casting by Deborah Brown.