Imagine a Simple Time in St. Louis

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Katie (Catherine Maloney, center) instructs Esther (Pamela Morris, left) and Rose (Alyssa Kelly, right) on how to handle a man with "a touch of the Irish" in "Meet Me in St. Louis." Dane Dupuis photo

Every holiday season, at least 100 theater companies will produce Joe Landry’s adaptation of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

For the first time in five years, Center Stage is not one of them —instead choosing “Meet Me in St. Louis – A Live Radio Play,” opening Friday, November 23, at the Southampton Cultural Center.

And Landry finds it refreshing.

“I think it’s really cool that they’re mixing it up for their audience,” he said. “There are certain theaters that have done ‘Wonderful Life’ every year for years now. There’s a production in Saint Paul where it’s their 13thyear straight doing it. This sounds like a Hallmark Christmas movie, but apparently there was a couple who met doing ‘Wonderful Life’ and got married this year.”

He laughed to himself. “There are so many productions that it would kind of be impossible to see more than one or two,” he said. “So I’m particularly excited to see this title, which has only been done twice so far, and I’m honored to be part of the holiday season there.”

Friday night will not only mark the Long Island premiere of Landry’s adaptation, but the playwright’s first visit to the East End — despite the view from his balcony in Bridgeport, Connecticut — and his first meeting with Michael Disher, face to face.

“I hope he likes the show! Oh my God, can you imagine? Faces don’t lie,” the director said with a playful groan. “I’m actually thrilled. I love his radio shows because I think they force us to go back to the most holy of attributes that we’re born with — that we lose as we grow up — which is called imagination. And anytime we have an opportunity to restore that, albeit for a couple of hours, I’m all for that. I am all, all for that.”

Though it is fashioned as a circa-1940s live radio show — outfitted with period microphones and music stands, “On the Air” and “Applause” audience signs — this production is more of a hybrid, Landry explained. It is also a musical with choreography, he said, though it is ultimately the director’s choice to include the visual elements.

Disher refused to shy away.

“There’s a whole lot going on with it. There’s just a whole lot,” he said. “It’s goofy and whacky and campy enough that it really does work. As anyone who knows me knows, I just love the 1940s. I think it was a gorgeous era. The style was amazing. Fashion was not fashion. It was architecture. Men behaved like gentlemen and ladies behaved like ladies. And I was drawn to this show because it is unapologetically innocent.”

Based on the 1944 MGM musical starring Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien, “Meet Me in St. Louis” chronicles the life of the Smith family in the year leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair, as they anxiously prepare for a move to New York while learning lessons of life and love.

“This play is about a family that finds everything that they need is right within their house,” Landry said. “There’s not a lot of plot going on, but there’s a lot of charm and a lot of character.”

A period piece even at the time, the musical’s claim to fame was introducing the song, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” Disher explained, and the Cultural Center’s production will also include, “The Boy Next Door, “Skip To My Lou,” “The Trolley Song” and the title track, “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

“It has no agenda. It really has no meaning. It’s not going to change the world,” Disher said of the show. “It’s just a simple story about simple people who sing some terribly beautiful songs and, ultimately, will send the audience out just completely void of any stress.

“That was the point of the MGM musicals, particularly during World War II, and this one came out right in 1944,” he continued. “They were designed to make people happy in times that maybe weren’t quite so happy. Are you catching my drift? There’s no chaos, there’s no arguing, there’s no fact versus truth. It’s just a simple, lovely tale. And what’s wrong with that for a couple of hours? Nothing. I would like to have a couple of hours like that every single day of my life, to be quite honest.”

Theatrically, simpler can be more effective and far more endearing, the director said. For “Meet Me in St. Louis,” that means a cast of 13, a piano and a sound effects table set in a period radio station — nothing more.

“Put an audience member into a seat, have them flip their imagination switch, and amazing things can happen — amazing things,” Disher said. “All you have to do is think, remember and smile.”

“Meet Me in St. Louis: A Live Radio Play” will open on Friday, November 23, at 7 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center, located at 25 Pond Lane in Southampton. Additional performances will be held on Thursdays through Saturdays, except November 24, at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through December 9.

Cast includes: Michael Casper, Gabriel DiFrancesco, Joey Giovingo, Amanda Jones, Alyssa Kelly, John Lovett, Katrina Lovett, Catherine Maloney, Pamela Morris, Michaal Lyn Schepps, Anna Schiavoni, Lon Shomer and Edna Winston. Michael Disher directs. Amanda Jones musically directs. Alyssa Kelly choreographs.

Tickets are $25 and $12 for children and students under age 21. For more information, call (631) 287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.

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