Even when "Meet Me in St. Louis" premiered in film in 1944, it must have seemed delightfully old-fashioned.
Set against the backdrop of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, it incorporated a lot of old songs, including "Skip to My Lou," "Little Brown Jug" and "Auld Lang Syne." Even its title song was 40 years old and already familiar to mid-40s audiences.
The stage version came along 45 years later, and relied even more heavily on nostalgia.
The Manatee Players staging of that 1989 musical opened this week. It embraces the show's nostalgia, with gorgeous period costumes by Becky Evans, a bright and beautiful picture-postcard set by Steve Mitchell and evocative lighting by Cody Basha, plus the script's depiction of a familiar, idealized America that probably never existed.
But there's a lot more to the appeal of this show than mere nostalgia and idealism.
The show is full of radiant performances in major roles. Much of the singing is so pretty that it's almost startling. Ensemble numbers are full of soaring harmonies. The dance numbers (choreographed by Dewayne Barrett, who also directed) are crisp and clever.
Among the brightest of the show's many shining performances are those from Eliza Engle as Esther (the Judy Garland role from the film), Ellie McCaw as her sister Rose and Brian Finnerty as brother Lon. All three of them handle the singing, acting and dancing chores with skill and effervescence. Young Alanna Rife, who alternates with Olivia Garland in the role of Tootie, revealed a remarkably mature and very pretty singing voice on opening night.
The stage musical's story is somewhat different than that of the movie. Esther was the focus of the film, but here she's just one of several central characters, all members of her family.
The conflicts are trivial -- they revolve largely around girls being unable to snag the boys they like quite as quickly as they'd like, and the family's moving to a new city-- but the characters, and the actors who portray them, are so likeable that it's easy to let yourself care.
The show's full of great songs, the best-known of which are "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song" and, of course, the title number.
Barrett's dance numbers are just delightful. The whole cast carries them off well, but Finnerty's performance, both his dancing and his singing, in "The Banjo" -- a great dance number, though not a great song -- is perhaps that the one that leaves the most lasting impression.
Engle's voice is absolutely gorgeous too, and even if you compare her singing to Garland's, she doesn't lose by much.
The show's only noticeable flaw is that it has more big roles than it has great performers. There are no really bad performances, but the abundance of great singers makes the average singers more conspicuous.
Details: Through Dec. 21, Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $27-$37. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeplayers.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.