New Broadway Musicals Bank On Tradition and Star Power

Stylish `Meet Me in St. Louis' recycles family saga from a '40s film hit; Sting and $4 million advance ticket sale may not save `3 Penny Opera'. THEATER: REVIEW

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS Musical with songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, book by Hugh Wheeler, based on ``The Kensington Stories'' by Sally Benson and the MGM film. Directed by Louis Burke. Choreography by Joan Brickhill. Starring George Hearn, Milo O'Shea, Charlotte Moore, Betty Garrett. At the Gershwin Theatre. `MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS'' is more than a respectful salute to the heyday of MGM musicals. It's an affectionate, outgoing, lavishly picturesque celebration of an American past as depicted in the 1944 Vincente Minnelli-Judy Garland version of Sally Benson's stories.

The pleasures of this new family show begin with an overture rich in Martin-Blane tunes like ``The Boy Next Door,'' ``The Trolley Song,'' and ``Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,'' plus the title number and others from the American song bag. Performed by accomplished singers and dancers, the adaptation honors the virtues and values of an old-fashioned extravaganza rooted in a time, a place, and a show-business tradition.

Plotwise, nothing much happens. But the play moves along pleasantly enough, thanks both to the onstage company and the handsome Keith Anderson settings that extend from the hospitable Smith home to a skating rink and finally to the proscenium-expanding site of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Spectators will find much to delight them beyond Esther's (Donna Kane) romance with that boy next door and the question of whether the Smith family will move from St. Louis to New York. There's a maneuverable trolley to go with ``The Trolley Song'' and a banjo number with which Michael O'Steen and company stop the show.

There are solos and/or duets for Betty Garrett (the Smith's Irish maid), Milo O'Shea (Grandpa) as well as George Hearn and Charlotte Moore (Mr. and Mrs. Smith). And there are all sorts of lively ensembles - jigs, struts, cakewalks, a climactic march - to convey the mood, under Bruce Pomahac's baton. With choreography by Joan Brickhill and Mr. Anderson's costumes, the choral numbers swirl with color and motion.

Though they tend to be underused, the stars provide the kind of histrionic substance essential even to such escapist entertainment as ``Meet Me in St. Louis.'' Completing the Smith m'enage are Courtney Peldon, Juliet Lambert, and Rachael Graham.

3 PENNY OPERA Musical with book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht (translated by Michael Feingold), music by Kurt Weill. Directed by John Dexter. Staging by Peter Gennaro. Starring Sting, Maureen McGovern, Alvin Epstein, Georgia Brown. At the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

ROCK and movie star Sting is more slight than sinister in this new version of the Brecht-Weill ``3 Penny Opera.'' A dandy with a sword cane rather than a ``Mack the Knife'' of well-known song, Sting does, however, fit Brecht's discription of the lusty, thieving anti-hero as ``a bourgeois character.'' For Brecht intended his gang of crooks and beggars to represent the Victorian world of privileged decadence.

It remains to be seen whether the presence of Sting and an advance sale of more than $4 million will sustain ``3 Penny Opera'' in the face of largely discouraging notices. While beggars can't be choosers, Broadway playgoers can.

Director John Dexter has applied yet another layer to the 1928 Brecht-Weill adaptation of ``The Beggar's Opera,'' John Gay's seminal 18th-century pastiche. The tatterdemalion crew of lower-depth characters can be taken as an equivalent of today's homeless, living out of cardboard boxes. The assorted concepts come together somewhat uneasily in the production at the Lunt-Fontanne. The humor is prevailingly grim and sardonic, as it no doubt should be in Michael Feingold's recurrently ribald translation. But the alienation Brecht intended may go too far.

Substituting for an indisposed Maureen McGovern at a recent performance, Nancy Ringham sang well and portrayed the fetching, strong-willed Polly Peachum with confidence. The Victorian underworld and conniving constabulary are well represented by Alvin Epstein and Georgia Brown (Mr. and Mrs. Peachum), Kim Criswell (Lucy Brown), Larry Marshall (police chief Tiger Brown), Josh Mostel (Man of the Mint), Suzanne Douglas (Jenny Diver), and Ethyl Eichelberger (as a bald ballad singer serving as scruffy Greek chorus).

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