SB Civic Light Opera

The Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera's "Meet Me in St. Louis" is a slice of Americana that takes us back to a  simpler time in middle America as St. Louis braces to be "the Center of the Universe" for the 1904 World's Fair. This is a light hearted song and dance extravaganza with musical direction by Elise Unruth, and superb choreography by Peggy Hickey. Most of the action takes place inside and out of the Smith's big turn of the century home. It has the simple elegance of a well-to-do family of the period with trees in the back yard. The period costumes, bicycle-built-for-two and other touches set us firmly in the heartland in 1903. This is the story of the Smith family, and how they deal with the sweeping changes in their lives, from Esther's falling in love with "the boy next door" and sister Rose's coy infatuation with Warren Sheffield. When the girls get dinner moved up an hour, because Warren is supposed to call Rose long distance, she doesn't know if she'll even be home. She is, though, and this is where the fun really starts. This is a close family, even as little sisters Tootie and Agnes really go at each other, fighting over a doll, Grandpa reminds them that "we really like each other." They all break into song and dance, with David Richards' Grandpa like a dancing elephant among gazelles. Ann Rittenhouse's Mother is warm and tender in "You'll Hear a Bell" as she explains to Esther how she'll know when she falls in love, which she has already done with John Truitt. Brother Lon is going away to Princeton, and we have a great ensemble square dance at his going away party. When Esther gets John to stay and help her turn off the lights they realize that their love is mutual in "Over the Bannister." On Halloween night, Katie advises Rose and Esther in the ways of courting with a soft-shoe pas-de-trois in "A Touch of the Irish." When Father comes home and announces he's been chosen to head the New York office, and they'll all be moving, pandemonium breaks loose and he becomes the enemy in "A Day in New York."

We move to a beautiful ballroom for the Christmas Eve party. There's a big, lighted Christmas tree in the center, and lights around the proscenium arch to give a festive atmosphere. Following the Christmas waltz, we have the scintillating "Banjo" ensemble dance. This seems to be mostly an elaborate tap dance combined with the graceful leaps and twirls of classical ballet, and a few high leg kicks reminiscent of the can-can thrown in. Whatever it is, it's one of the wildest pieces I've ever seen. Following the first outdoor exhibit of electric lighting at the rotunda of the 1904 World's Fair, we're left with the thought that the most important things don't always consist of material advancement, but rather simple things that come from familiarity with surroundings and family, and desires that are modest and easily attainable.

This is a strong cast from top to bottom, but 13 year old Megan Drew absolutely steals the show as Tootie. She's precocious, and tart, sharp as a razor, with a distinctively dark side. We surmise that she has a whole slew of dolls buried in the back yard. They have all died from multiple fatal diseases, when it only takes one, as the postman points out. When she and Agnes disrupt Lon's going away party she sings the "Drunk Song" - "I was drunk last night, dear mother," as she teams with Agnes and Rose in a soft shoe with canes and skimmers. She leads the attack on father in "A Day in New York," and generally disrupts everything. I've seen young actors who are very good, like 11 year old Hannah Utt, as sister Agnes, but Megan Drew has a commanding stage presence that is rare in all but the best actors. She cuts a solitary, melancholy figure as she sits forlornly waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. There's a confidence and magnetism in her bearing that dominates all around her when she's on the stage, even in the curtain calls. It's a bearing that can't be taught, but is just there in some people. Megan Drew is definitely an actress to watch. The Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera's "Meet Me in St. Louis" is non-stop song and dance with a top notch cast, and great sets and costumes. It's tremendous fun, and continues at The Granada Theater through August 16.

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