Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee’s Summer Stock Theatre

Between the first release of the MGM movie on November 28, 1944 and a Broadway premiere on November 2, 1989, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS succeeded in several summer stock productions. Reprising her role as Esther Smith from a 1959 television production of the musical, the legendary Jane Powell enchanted both audiences and critics as a lovestruck teenager at the turn of the last century. Opposite Ms. Powell was Broadway, television and recording star Ed Evanko, who filled the tent with his booming voice throughout the 1971 season. Of interest to those who keep an eye on the current state of Broadway musicals is the credit of Dennis Grimaldi as an ensemble member of this production. Mr. Grimaldi received a 2014 Tony Award for Best Musical as one of the producers of A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER. He graciously supplied the wonderful photo below of him dancing with an elegantly posed Candace Tovar.

Golden Oldies Add Luster to ST. LOUIS

By Michael H. Drew, the Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, August 4, 1971

The late, late show sprang to life at the Melody Top Tuesday night, and so did the 1904 World Fair, as MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS auspiciously opened its two week run.

With nostalgia and sentiment permeating the air, this seldom staged adaptation of a 1944 MGM movie seemed just what the audience ordered.

A near capacity crowd cheered lustily. And one of the tent's biggest advance sales surely will include lots of happy grandpas and grandmas.

Customers under 30 may wonder if people really once lived like this – or even wrote musicals like this one. Indeed, Sally Benson's screenplay-libretto, derivative of LIFE WITH FATHER, is essentially one warm family grouping after another.

For plot development we get such crises as: Will father move the family to New York? Will the boy next door find his tuxedo in time for the big dance? (I won't spoil much by revealing that the answers are, respectively, no and yes.)

When things got mired in molasses, conductor Donald Yap and choreographer James Smock cranked up orchestra and chorus for a repeat of the signature tune, "The Trolley Song."

Indeed, the Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane score is easily the show's most memorable feature. Rarely, if ever, has a film originated so many hits: "The Trolley Song," which topped THE HIT PARADE for weeks; "The Boy Next Door," "Skip to My Lou" and the moody Yuletide classic, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which got rather short shrift Tuesday.

To deliver the songs, producer Martin Wiviott has employed flesh and blood singers – especially boy next door Ed Evanko, this season's brightest new star. The handsome baritone has it all – range, timbre, presence and power that the tent can't contain.

As his girlfriend we have Hollywood's Jane Powell, whose soprano is equally melodic, if considerably less sizable. I, for one, feared that I wouldn't be able to suspend my disbelief enough to accept the 42-year old matron as Evanko's 17-year old lovebird.

Happily, however, from my third row seat her remarkable face and figure seemed equal to the challenge. But I could have done with some less stylized fluttering.

Though he encourages Joan Carvelle (as her sister) in much of the same overposturing, director Stuart Bishop has staged the show with commendable feeling for the period. In a particularly nice touch, Bishop opens many scenes with a ferrotype picture freeze. The production numbers exhibit his designer's feeling for color.

I also liked Erik Rhodes as the put-upon father and Dorsey Vogt as the vinegarish maid. But grandfather Clyde Miller squashed some good lines by bellowing declamations.

Jane Powell and Clyde Miller

Jane Powell as Esther and Clyde Miller as Grandpa in Melody Top's first production of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1971). Using the same script and score, the musical was revived at Melody Top in 1982 with Andrea McArdle as Esther and Travis Hudson as Katie. Photo by Sally Marks.

Nostalgia Reigns for Musical Run

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, August 4, 1971

The Melody Top Theatre turned the clock back for a veritable binge of nostalgia for the next two weeks when it opened Sally Benson's MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS Tuesday.

The whole company has gotten into the act. From the front office on back, the men, including producer Martin Wiviott, are decked out in turn-of-the-century plus fours – that is, knickers – and wildly patterned stockings.

It's sort of overkill. The show, with its hit songs familiar from the time of the Judy Garland film and its picture of harmonious family life, breathes a different kind of atmosphere scented with wonderful memories of a gentler time.

In the center of the nostalgia bit is the show's star, petite Jane Powell, whose contemporaries looking down from their full decades of living marveled at the miracle of her youth.

However, youth cannot be denied and she is given a hard run for her money by the youngsters director Stuart Bishop has cast in her support.

The handsome and talented Ed Evanko multiplies the fans he made in DAMN YANKEES in his present assignment as her youthful leading man. The flutter of hearts is almost audible every time he sings.

Tiny Santa Tenuta, the youngest member of the cast, carries off almost every scene she is in.

Jo Jean Retrum, Joan Carvelle and Miche Priaulx, all Melody Top regulars, provide the strong central core of the show while old Top friends, Erik Rhodes and Barbara Crouch, turn in the kind of performance that has won them such friends.

The show sticks together well. Miss Powell gives her fans plenty to marvel at while the youngsters recall the promise she displayed when she was their age.

Meet Me in St. Louis Trolley

A piece of scenery designed by Stuart Bishop, depicting an iconic trolley in the musical's plot, used for Melody Top's production of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1971). Photo by Sally Marks.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS Cast of Characters

Grandpa Prophater:Clyde Miller
Tootie:Santa Tenuta
Agnes:Jo Jean Retrum
Mr. Smith:Erik Rhodes
Mrs. Smith:Barbara Crouch
Lon:Miche Priaulx
Rose:Joan Carvelle
Esther:Jane Powell
Katie:Dorsey Vogt
Douglas Moore:James Hamel
Lucille Ballard:Suzan Sidney
John Truitt:Ed Evanko
Dr. Bond:Ralph Braun

Friends and Neighbors of the Smith Family: Judy Blasi, Ralph Braun, Dennis Dohman, Tracy Friedman, Adam Grammis, Marlissa Griffin, Dennis Grimaldi, Rod Keuper, Clyde Laurents, Mark Mathews, Susan Rush and Candace Tovar.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS Musical Numbers

Prologue (The Skaters):The Company
Meet Me in St. Louis:Esther and Company
Meet Me in St. Louis (Reprise):The Company
The Boy Next Door:Esther
Almost:Rose and Douglas
The Boy Next Door (Reprise):Esther
Skip to My Lou:Esther and Company
Over the Bannister:Esther
You Are for Loving:John
How Do I Look?:Esther and Rose
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas:Esther
A Raving Beauty:Rose and Douglas
Finale, Act One:The Company
The Trolley Song:Esther and Company
What's His Name?:Lucille and Boys
If I Had an Igloo:Esther, Tootie and Company
Diamonds in the Starlight:John
Be Anthing But a Girl:Esther, Rose and Girls
You Are for Loving (Reprise):Esther and John
The Trolley Song (Reprise):The Company
Finale, Act Two:The Company

Meet Me in St. Louis Rehearsal

Erik Rhodes as Mr. Smith, Miche Priaulx as Lon, Santa Tenuta as Tootie, Barbara Crouch as Mrs. Smith, Clyde Miller as Grandpa Prophater, Jo Jean Retrum as Agnes, Jane Powell as Esther and Joan Carvelle as Rose in rehearsal for MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1971). Photo by Sally Marks.

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