The overture to the Merely Players' production of Meet Me in St. Louis, featuring "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," evoked a warm glow and signaled the start of what should have been an evening of pleasurable, nostalgic theater.
What followed seldom met that promise, even casting doubt on whether the 1944 movie starring Judy Garland measures up to memory.
Based on Sally Benson's The Kensington Stories, both the musical and the movie follow a family facing a father's transfer from St. Louis to New York City the year before the 1904 World's Fair.
The movie was not among MGM's splashiest musicals. It was a simple story with nice songs fitting naturally into the plot. Now we're confronting a 1989 blown-up Broadway version featuring a new book by Hugh Wheeler lacking the charm of the original.
The usual youthful sparkle and high energy of Merely Players' casts might have worked to assure entertaining theater. But the company was not up to the task of elevating this stage production to the movie's innocent nostalgia.
In addition to the limitations imposed by this ill-conceived stage version - starting with poorly drawn cookie-cutter characters - Merely Players' Meet Me in St. Louis is beset by uninspired direction, flat and amateurish staging, insufficiently rehearsed, self-conscious choreography, pathetic cardboard props and several self-conscious, lackluster performances.
But the most glaring problem when I saw the show Sunday was the unprofessional sound quality, with body-miked singers becoming inaudible when they turned their heads, a situation worsened by the annoying buzz of occasional feedback.
Playing the Judy Garland role of Esther is recent Susquehanna University graduate Branda Lock, who delivers a performance clearly above that of most in the cast. But she fails to invest her songs with feeling and lacks even a shred of Garland's magic.
A vocal standout is beginning Catonsville Community College student Kevin Heckendorn, who makes his Merely Players debut as John Truit. He brings professionalism and first-rate singing to the production.
Other noteworthy performances come from Sharon Kneebone as Mrs. Smith, Ed Wintermute - who is forced to wear a baffling series of strange hats - as Grandpa, and Brandon Hendrickson, who delivers a lovable brother Lon Smith, about to go off to Yale.
Lindsay Espinosa is graceful as Rose Smith, and Anne Arundel Community College theater student James Matthew is credible as Rose's beau, Warren Shefield.
Another standout is Cheryl Vourvoulas as Katie the Cook, bringing the play's most genuine character to life, offering some hearty laughs along the way.
Fifth-grader Angelica Peaco had apparently learned all her lines as Tootie, but they were not always easy to discern because she often fell victim to poor sound.
Angelica's father, Mark Peaco, plays Alonso Smith, a one-dimensional, too-loud character, whose chauvinism may well reflect paternal behavior of a century ago.
The rest of the cast is adequate, although it seemed that they all could have used more rehearsal time to conquer their cardboard stiffness.
Speaking of cardboard - the cardboard trolley would be an embarrassment at any self-respecting middle school production and greatly detracts from "The Trolley Song."
"Meet Me in St. Louis" continues in the Main Theater of Chesapeake Arts Center tonight, tomorrow and Sunday. Call 410-636-6597 to order tickets.