This beautifully mounted stage version of the MGM musical classic that helped make Judy Garland a household name is the latest transferal from Drury Lane Oakbrook to the Drury Lane Water Tower Theatre. And, as it happens, it's the perfect choice for family holiday theater in downtown Chicago.
The product of talented director Jim Corti, musical director Margaret James and choreographer Tammy Mader, this production features many of the same actors and production elements of the original, but with additions that make this version a bit different and exciting. But the beautiful original arched sets and festive lighting by Brian Sidney Bembridge and Jesse Klug continue to provide a warm environment for this story. And Tatjana Radisic's elegantly pastel turn-of-the-century costumes once again elegantly wrap each character like a holiday gift.
The Smith family features many of the same fine actors as in the original Oakbrook version, but there are a few new additions. Richard Henzel is a more appropriately aged Grandpa Prophater this time around and he brings a nice maturity and sense of humor to the family scenes. All of the daughters are new in this production, too. Dara Cameron makes a feisty, yet stunning Rose, the elder sister awaiting a long-distance telephone proposal from true love, Warren Sheffield. Young Emily Ashenden and Emily Leahy complement each other as the younger siblings, Agnes and Tootie, the latter all but stealing the show with her terrific stories, one-liners and musical numbers.
But the true jewel in this cast is Megan Long's Esther Smith, the role created on-screen by Judy Garland. The girl sings and dances beautifully and effortlessly, particularly with the younger Smith girls in "Under the Bamboo Tree." Her rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is guaranteed to bring a lump to your throat. Together with the brilliant ensemble, Ms. Long closes Act I with the famous "Trolley Song," a number so effectively staged upon a simple vehicle that weaves around the stage before the curtain falls. Megan is paired very nicely with handsome Justin Berkobien as John Truitt, the "Boy Next Door," a young actor who will hopefully be seen a lot more on Chicagoland stages. He was the actor who so brilliantly brought Buddy Holly to life by the Drury Lane Theatres.
For those who've never seen the film, the story is simply a yearlong look at the everyday life of one Victorian family who love and support each other as they try to cope with the changes that come with the march of progress in America at that time. That it's set against the months leading up to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition with its sparkling outdoor electric lights and its modern inventions makes it that much more charming and endearing.