Monday, December 7, 2009

Meet Me In St. Louis

Back in the old house on Villanova Drive, there was an upstairs room in which the walls were decorated by the Playbills of literally dozens of Broadway shows. MotherBlog and FatherBlog were big fans of the theater, and they took young TigerBlog and BrotherBlog to see as many shows on the Great White Way as they did Knicks' games at Madison Square Garden.

The result has been TigerBlog's lifelong love of theater and sports, two pursuits that TB has always thought of as very similar. Both are about teamwork, about creating something where the whole functions beyond just the individual. In both there are countless more hours of preparation than there are performance, and in both the final product is put out there for all to see and judge.

Yes, there are differences as well, such as the fact that in sports somebody wins and somebody loses. And there is the physical nature of sports (though dancing can be quite challenging, as can performing on stage night after night). TigerBlog Jr., who has considerable experience in both sports and music, summed it up this way: "They're both cool, but I've never gotten jacked up playing the bassoon."

The biggest similarity between sports and theater, though, is that they require genuine talent, and it's obvious when you're watching the most talented perform. It is TigerBlog's contention that for the most part there is little in the way of talent that separates your average major movie star from the tens of thousands who never make it; the key is being in the right place at the right time and having the right look. In sports and theater, the right look doesn't look right if it's not backed up by substance.

All of which brings us to the Newtown Community Theater's current run of "Meet Me In St. Louis," whose cast includes a chorus member named Little Miss TigerBlog. As an aside, the Newtown Community Theater is the oldest theater in the United States.

The average old-time American musical is heavy on music and light on drama, though most have their heavy moments. "South Pacific" is centered around World War II. "Oklahoma" has a genuine bad guy; "West Side Story" kills off its three main male characters. And don't get TB started on "Fiddler on the Roof."

"Meet Me In St. Louis" doesn't have anything that approaches that level. It's centered around a family anticipating the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, and other than the questions of whether or not Esther and Rose will get their men and whether or not Mr. Smith will actually follow through on moving the family from St. Louis to New York before the start of the Fair, there's not much there other than good clean fun and really breezy songs that get into your head and stay there:
"Meet me in St. Looie, Looie; meet me at the fair. Don't tell me the lights are shining, any place but there."

TigerBlog saw a few dress rehearsals and has seen several of the performances, and of course he came away with a few thoughts that weren't really the point of the show.

First there is the character named Warren Sheffield, who is refered to several times as a "Yale man" during his courtship (that's what they called it back then) of Rose, the oldest Smith daughter. Upon hearing that there was a "Yale man" named Sheffield, TigerBlog immediately thought of John Sheffield, the first-team All-Ivy tight end from Yale this past season.

Sheffield (the tight end) caught 61 passes for 612 yards and finished his career third all-time at Yale with 126 receptions; he had three catches for 44 yards against Princeton. TigerBlog wondered if Sheffield's family history at Yale dated back more than 100 years and began with a fictional character.

Then there's Lon, the only male of the five Smith children. The entire Smith family is proud of the fact that Lon has been accepted to Princeton; in fact, one of the key scenes revolves around Lon's going-away party before leaving for New Jersey.

Because the World's Fair was in 1904, and the Smith family was afraid their proposed move to New York the winter before would force them to miss it, then Lon would have arrived on campus in 1903, making him a member of the Class of 1907.

As the son of a Midwestern lawyer, Lon was probably the norm for Princeton's all-male population at the time. John Truitt, the next-door neighbor and love of Esther's life, plays baseball and basketball in the show, and it's likely Lon was an athlete as well.

Was he an athlete at Princeton? Football was the big sport at the time, obviously. If Lon Smith was a football player, his final two years were the first of Bill Roper's tenure as head coach. Roper still holds the record for career wins by a Princeton football coach with 89, including a 16-2-1 record his first two years that featured the 1906 national championship. Maybe when Lon went back for the wedding of Esther and John or Rose and Warren, he did so as a national champion.

Esther is carrying a tennis racket in the first scene of the show, so maybe that was the Smith family game. If Lon played tennis, he came to Princeton at the right time - the team debuted two years earlier.

In fact, Princeton athletics added tennis, hockey, swimming, basketball and soccer between 1900 and 1906. Prior to the start of the 20th century, Princeton had football, track and field, golf, baseball (the first intercollegiate sport, dating to 1864), rowing and lacrosse, a sport that was dropped between 1894 and 1920.

It wasn't until 20-30 years after Lon graduated that Princeton added fencing, 150-pound football and squash; it wasn't until more than 60 years had passed that women were allowed to attend Princeton.

Let's assume for a minute that Lon had a good experience at Princeton, probably following into his father's career.

As for the current production of the show in Newtown, Lon is played by Justin Derry, whose list of credits in his bio is fairly long. During one scene in the second act, Lon is back in St. Louis for Christmas 1903, and he teaches the locals a dance he's learned in Princeton called "the Banjo," which is one of the highlights of the show. It also features a two-row kick line, which caused TB to think back to high school theater and Mr. Green, who said that a kick line would always make an audience applaud. Sure enough, Mr. Green was right.

The cast is a mix of adults, current 20-something types and kids. Rose (Kristin Kaufmann, also the show's choreographer) and Warren (Brent Minder) have a great duet to "Raving Beauty," and Esther (Amelia Arrigo, one of Little Miss TigerBlog's after-school teachers) has her own great duet with John (Michael Bryant) to "You Are For Loving" and a beautiful solo rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." They are all extremely talented, and Kaufmann, Arrigo and Martha Ellen Smith (Mrs. Smith) have stunning voices.

But for TB's money, the show is stolen by two little girls. The first is Julia Mitchell, a fourth-grader who plays the youngest Smith daughter, Tootie, with a stage presence that would make actors 10 times her age jealous.

The second is Little Miss TigerBlog, who appears in only two numbers, "The Trolley Song" ("clang, clang, clang went the trolley; ding, ding, ding went the bell") and the finale.

LMTB has no previous theater experience and knew no one other than Arrigo prior to this show, and she now performs in the chorus on the same stage where she stood all by herself six weeks ago to audition, because it was something she decided she wanted to do.

TigerBlog told her before opening night that the world is filled with people who sit in the audience, but it takes a special courage to get up on the stage.

In sports, and in the theater.


Florence said...

I enjoyed your commentary, and thanks for the kind words about our Tootie!

Julia's Mom (w'81)

Anonymous said...

We are thrilled to read your commentary on the Newtown Arts Company (NAC) production of Meet Me in St Louis. That interfaced with the history of the time period and characters, has helped to embelish the trip to St Louis. The Production was fine family entertainment at its best and proves that NAC is a wonderful addition and our good fortune in having them here in Newtown!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your kind words and support of Newtown Arts Company! I certainly hope TigerBlog Jr. will enjoy many more moments on the stage. As the mother of one of the 20 somethings who appeared in the Trolley Song and the Christmas Ball I really appreciated your positive comments and the historical background.

Phoenix Teardrops said...

Up through freshman year of high school, I played every sport imaginable, my favorites being basketball, softball, and cheerleading. I've found that cheerleading is a great mix of sports and theater, as one is always performing, always smiling, and always projecting the voice. Though I do miss my days of romping and running, theater will always be my dearest passion. So I thank you for your praise and comments, and find this blog incredibly refreshing!
-Miss Rose Smith

Martha Ellen Smith said...

It was my pleasure to chat with you, and thank you kindly for your good review!