Toward the end of "Meet Me in St. Louis," the chorus, dressed in uniforms jolly enough to wear marching down Main Street, U.S.A. - in either Anaheim or Orlando - strut down the aisles singing the praises of John Phillip Sousa.
Normally I am a firm believer in separation of stage and audience. I regard the sight of actors in the aisles as an act of provocation in which any response - tripping, for example - is justified.
But by this point I had been utterly disarmed. Here were enormously talented kids who had been singing and dancing their hearts out all evening long. They had a Middle American innocence I thought had been banished from the musical theater by its grandiose pretensions in recent years. It was all I could do to keep from crying.
"Meet Me in St. Louis," a stage version of the beloved Vincent Minnelli movie, has the familiar songs ("The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas") as well as a few others by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (some from their Broadway show "Best Foot Forward").
Does it advance the cause of the American musical theater? No. (Since the American musical theater is fairly moribund, can it withstand any more "advances?" No.) Do the stage performers efface the memory of the movie's stars? No. Is it wonderful, endearing family entertainment? Yes.
The show is a series of sketches of turn-of-the-century life in a middle-class family on the even of the St. Louis World's Fair. Like many works from the period just before and after World War II, it is full of nostalgia for what seemed the gentler, simpler America before World War I.
The vignettes themselves are no more consequential than the plots of most sitcoms. Film techniques can flesh them out in a way that a show on a huge stage cannot. What the musical lacks in intimacy it makes up for in energy and good will.
The book has a pertness that the cast, under Louis Burke's direction, projects with an admirable minimum of coyness. This is hardly a surprise when you have such estimable "pros" as George Hearn (playing a stern patriarch with a heart of gold), Charlotte Moore (as the wife who knows how to manipulate him), Betty Garrett (as the lovable, wise family cook) and Milo O'Shea (as the equally lovable old codger of a Grandpa).
The younger generation of performers has an appealing, fresh-scrubbed look, plenty of talent and an old-fashioned polish.
Donna Kane sings the familiar tunes with a beautiful voice, a solid understanding of style and genuine, affecting emotion.
Jason Workman is perfectly cast as "The Boy Next Door," and in the splendid dream ballet Joan Brickhill has choreographed in which the two meet on the show's adorable trolley, the effect is entrancing. Brickhill's work throughout has great precision and an infectious zest. (There is also a deft ice ballet choreographed by Michael Tokar.)
One of the pitfalls in a show like this is the casting of a child. Courtney Peldon, as the irrepressible Tootie, happily lacks the dreadful cuteness endemic to the breed. She's a solid, skilled performer. So, as her sister, is Rachel Graham.
Keith Anderson's set and costume designs have a lightness and airiness perfect for the material. But then everything about the show seems to strike just the right note. Even the excellent conductor, Bruce Pomahac, who leads the audience in a community sing during the curtain calls, has a cherubic expression suitable to the proceedings.
Maybe it's the onset of middle age, but I found "Meet Me In St. Louis" an unexpected delight. There are dull stretches, songs that don't really pay off, a bit too much moving of scenery, but if the show doesn't charm you, your heart must be even harder than a theater critic's.
You will never forget two or three of the tunes in "Meet Me in St. Louis" - but then you never have.
Indeed, I suspect that were it not for the presence of such time-worn, yet time-honored, standards as "The Trolley Song," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," not to mention the title song itself, we would not be meeting "Meet Me in St. Louis" now, and certainly not at the Gershwin Theater, where its elaborate and elaborated stage manifestation opened last night.
Isn't it odd that whereas it is possible to construct a movie out of a Broadway musical, offhand I cannot recall a truly successful stage version evolving from a Hollywood musical.
Attempts have been made - "Gigi," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "Singin' in the Rain" all cower to mind - but none has rung the bell. And the bell remains unrung by "Meet Me in St. Louis," even though it provides a mildly nostalgic and familiar evening of entertainment that could please many.
The original Vincente Minnelli movie was an exercise in style. This stage production is an exercise in recycling and an exercise, moreover, that produces more sweat than muscle. It is old-fashioned rather than classic, ancient rather than antique.
In fairness, the music and the story have their tastefully faded charms.
The score for the 1944 movie was by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (although three of the numbers, including that title song, were already standards by other composers), and these veteran songsmiths have returned and contributed a batch of brand new songs specially for the Broadway production.
Unfortunately, these new numbers are not up to much - one of them, "Paging Mr. Sousa," sounds like low-powered "Music Man" and could well be retitled something like "17 Trombones" - and Michael Gibson's orchestrations are a little artfully arty, a touch of Mussorgsky for a "Halloween Ballet," a suggestion of Ravel at the whisk of a waltz.
Still, the old songs, including "The Boy Next Door," retain their fragrance, and the new book, originated by the late Hugh Wheeler, has the measure of the original screenplay by Irving Brecher and Fred Finklehoffer that was based on short stories by Sally Benson.
There is a soft and easy sentimentality here, perhaps welcome in these harsher days, in its undemandingly massaging tale of domesticity and love in a comfortably middle-class, mid-American family at the turn of the century, whose big crisis is whether to relocate to New York and main concern seems to be marrying off marriageable daughters.
This new production is lavish enough - with all manner of expensive furniture and gimmicks, ranging from a wonderfully realistic trolley (which might do for trolley cars what in time the new Anglo-French musical "Miss Saigon" will undoubtedly do for helicopters), to a penny-farthing bicycle (in 1903?), real ice and real skates for a winterscape and real water fountains spouting real water in the final scene set at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904.
The complete design concept is by Keith Anderson and has a most attractive old Saturday Evening Post look that is corny but immaculately apt - his opening cartoon images at the beginning of each act are, by the way, the production's only individual touch.
Originality is not exactly the strong suit of the South African director Louis Burke, who seems strictly summer stock in an autumnal mood, while his wife, Joan Brickhill, has devised choreography fit to put Broadway back 50 years.
However, Burke and Brickhill keep the evening adroitly moving (aided by Anderson scenery, obviously the most moving aspect of the show), and the musical has been admirably cast.
Even so, the older, more seasoned members of the cast come off markedly best, with George Hearn as a mild-mannered, hopefully patriarchal martinet, Milo O'Shea as his lovable old Irish father, Charlotte Moore as his lovable middle-aged Irish wife and and Betty Garrett (nice to have her back) as his lovable indeterminately-aged Irish maid.
His children are lovable, too (surprisingly he doesn't have a dog). However, except for the odiously precocious little girl originally sugared by Margaret O'Brien, all the younger roles, including Donna Kane and Jason Workman as the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed juveniles, have a certain cookie-cutter similarity to them and the casting to match.
Despite its easy air of opulence, I don't think "Meet Me in St. Louis" in its present shape would have made it on Broadway in 1944, even if it had never heard of Vincente Minnelli or MGM. In the circumstances one could hardly say less.
It's hard not to feel stirred when the lights dim in a Broadway theater, the curtain rises on a picture-postcard frontcloth, and a confident pit band splashes through an overture heralding ''The Trolley Song,'' ''The Boy Next Door'' and ''Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.'' Do these songs affect us because their authors, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, touched something eternal in the American character when they wrote them for the M-G-M film musical ''Meet Me in St. Louis'' during the wartime of 1944? Or is it because the songs were first delivered by Judy Garland, that difficult cultural icon about whom our complicated feelings remain forever unresolved?
I'm not sure. In any case, Judy Garland isn't coming back and the original ''Meet Me in St. Louis'' is available on videocassette. So what's the mission of the stage replica at the Gershwin Theater? To spread the good will earned by the overture, I guess. And that task, if not a lot else, is accomplished by this lavish show despite such obstacles as insipid acting, an inane book and a complete lack of originality. While it's not high praise to say so, ''Meet Me in St. Louis'' is superior to the other latter-day Broadway adaptations of M-G-M musicals, ''Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'' and ''Singin' in the Rain.'' Unlike its predecessors, this show respects its source and knows its audience. It also benefits from the fact that the original material - Sally Benson's stories of domestic bliss and teen-age romance on the eve of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition - is too Kensington Avenue-bound to insist upon cinematic sweep.
The driving force behind the stage version is the director-and-choreographer team of Louis Burke and Joan Brickhill. They have put on many musicals in South Africa, and I don't mean ''Sarafina!'' (Though they do list one ''all black African musical'' in their Playbill biographies, their St. Louis is conspicuously all white.) Given the familiar titles in their credits, it's clear that Mr. Burke and Miss Brickhill have a particular passion for vintage Broadway musicals. After seeing ''Meet Me in St. Louis,'' it's equally clear that they have not witnessed many of those musicals in their original productions.
Their show, so reminiscent of ''American'' musicals in London, is the work of people who know what Broadway hits are supposed to look and sound like - information gleaned from the close study of original-cast recordings and production photographs - but who can only guess at what makes such shows tick. ''Meet Me in St. Louis'' comes with turntables of lantern-lighted Victorian scenery (by Keith Anderson) that mimics the opulence of Oliver Smith's designs in a show like ''Hello, Dolly!'' without recapturing their glamorous, advanced taste. The costumes - boaters and suspenders for men, petticoats galore for women -could be slightly faded wash-and-wear knockoffs of Miles White's clothes for ''High Button Shoes.'' Miss Brickhill's energetic (and well executed) dance routines - struts, cakewalks, square dances, dream ballets - have no internal drive but look like compilations of souvenir-program freeze-frames of the Broadway choreography of Michael Kidd and Onna White. Even Hilary Knight's poster art for the show suggests an enervated hybrid of his posters for ''Sugar Babies'' and ''Half a Sixpence.''
What prevents the derivative from becoming boring (except in a Halloween fantasy sequence) is the conviction and hard cash behind it. ''Meet Me in St. Louis,'' in contrast to most Broadway revivals, doesn't look cheap. There's not only a trolley but also an ice rink to employ a skater or two still loitering in the Gershwin from ''Starlight Express.'' What's more, Mr. Burke and Miss Brickhill have drilled their company and collaborators to produce the sound that goes with the show's look. Bruce Pomahac's conducting, Michael Gibson's orchestrations and all the voices have the brash snap of another era.
Yet this rigorous paint-by-numbers attempt to manufacture a Broadway hit is also the show's main trap. The mechanical technique precludes the imaginative spontaneity that might allow ''Meet Me in St. Louis'' to soar above the lumpy sum of its parts. As a result, this production desperately needs an exciting creative force on stage to ignite it - a Robert Lindsay, a Debbie Allen, a star-to-be - and that spark never comes. The Smith family and their neighbors are played by performers whose personalities are as generic as the production around them.
Donna Kane sings the Garland numbers with clarion tone, but she and her sibling partner in boy-chasing, Juliet Lambert, act like well-schooled Miss America contestants; only the different colors of their wigs permit us to tell them apart. (The boys are so interchangeable that the one next door might as well be addressed as ''occupant.'') As the Smith patriarch, a role identical to his ill-fated turn in Richard Rodgers's ''I Remember Mama,'' George Hearn can only rail at the ''newfangled'' telephone and condescend to his wife (Charlotte Moore). Milo O'Shea, a silver-haired grandfather in a progression of funny hats, deserves combat pay for the stage time he must share with the robotic little girl impersonating Margaret O'Brien's Tootie.
In the Marjorie Main role of the cook, Betty Garrett offers the genuine brio of the 1940's musical comedy performer she was. The evening's other real links to the past are Mr. Martin and Mr. Blane, who have written 10 new songs for the occasion. The lyrics for these numbers, which variously apotheosize banjos, the Irish, New York City and ice, are as laughably silly as the ginger peachy Hugh Wheeler dialogue. (When the chorus sings ''ice is twice as nice,'' one wants to counter, ''But liquor is quicker!'') The music, while no patch on the original ''St. Louis'' score, is consistent with the 1940's Tin Pan Alley sound that is so endearing in Mr. Martin's output, with and without Mr. Blane, in the musicals ''Best Foot Forward,'' ''Look Ma, I'm Dancin','' ''Love From Judy'' and ''High Spirits.''
But ''Meet Me in St. Louis'' isn't a throwback to those old Martin shows, any more than it transports us to turn-of-the-century St. Louis or to Arthur Freed's heyday at M-G-M. A synthetic approximation of old-fashioned Broadway crowd-pleasers rather than the real thing, it most resembles the many professional, second-rate shows a musical-comedy fanatic would settle for seeing in the 1950's or 60's when there were no tickets to be had at a ''Music Man'' or ''Dolly.'' (There's even a march, ''Paging Mr. Sousa,'' written and staged like ''76 Trombones.'') No doubt ''Meet Me in St. Louis'' can serve the same function today for matinee audiences shut out of Broadway's current reigning hits. It's hardly an unpleasant way to kill an afternoon in the theater, especially if you have a high tolerance for camp and are in the company of wide-eyed kids.