It might be hard to believe now, but West Side Story and The Music Man competed against each other at the 1958 Tony Awards, with The Music Man walking away with the Best Musical prize as well as three of the four acting awards! It’s not that Meredith Willson’s The Music Man isn’t a good show; it’s just that with time (and the hugely popular 1961 film adaptation), West Side Story has emerged as arguably one of the greatest musicals ever and the one from that season that made the biggest lasting impact on popular culture. Still, the story of “Professor” Harold Hill selling band instruments and uniforms from town to town, convincing families to invest in their children’s musical “gifts” (Harold himself can neither play an instrument or read music), and wooing Marian the Librarian is the kind of old-fashioned, sweet and simple crowd-pleaser that has made it an enduring favorite for nearly sixty years now; how nice to have it return in an enjoyable production at the Weathervane Playhouse in Newark right around Independence Day.
The Music Man is a slice of Americana set in Iowa during the summer of 1912 when the biggest news of the day included the local gossip and happenings within the town, not what was going on anywhere else in the world. It was a time of traveling salesmen, including the type that would make a big sale and then skip town as quickly as possible once the customers found that they had been mislead. Harold Hill is just that kind of salesman, promising to form a marching band and teach music to the children of the town only to disappear once the instruments and uniforms arrive. It is a con he has been working for years, making it difficult for the honest traveling salesmen who find themselves unwelcome in towns burned by Mr. Hill’s tactics. All of that is about to change when Harold arrives in Iowa, bewitches the town, and earns the affection of the town librarian, Marian. With a score containing “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” “Till There Was You,” and “Ya Got Trouble,” The Music Man is an enjoyable work, one that also shows how easy it is to convince people of anything you want so long as you keep telling them what they want to hear (brings to mind this election season, doesn’t it?).
Layne Roate plays Harold Hill, tough shoes for anyone to fill as Robert Preston, who originated the role on Broadway, preserved his performance in the popular 1962 film adaptation. Mr. Roate wisely doesn’t try to copy him; his Professor Hill seems far more human and relatable than the template, yet he doesn’t reinvent the character entirely. He may not be able to master Mr. Preston’s speed or diction in “Ya Got Trouble,” but Mr. Roate’s “Till There Was You,” in which he expresses his love to Marian, is sincere in a way Mr. Preston’s was not in comparison. His Harold is still a sneaky salesman, but what he really sells isn’t instruments or uniforms but hope. Sure, he may be planning to disappear as soon as the checks clear, but he has a knack for making a lot of people happy in the process.
Natalie Szczerba is a kind and emotionally accessible Marian Paroo, completely believable in the moment when she decides not to expose Harold for what he really is to the town when she sees his positive effect on her lisping brother, Winthrop. Ms. Szczerba doesn’t make Marian a pushover at all, but she isn’t as militarily strident as Shirley Jones was in the film either. This Marian’s “Goodnight, My Someone” feels like a hope-filled prayer, and Ms. Szczerba and Mr. Roate’s chemistry is immediately apparent. Do we know they are going to end up together? Sure, but the joy is in watching it happen.
Standouts in the supporting cast include Brad Johnson as Tommy, the rowdy boy courting the mayor’s daughter, and Ricardo Locci as Charlie Cowell, the salesman looking to expose Harold’s past to the town. Neither part is particularly large or defined, but these two performers bring a lot to the table. Mr. Johnson’s energy and bright smile as Tommy would be cloying if it didn’t come off as so naturally naive and youthful. Mr. Locci’s Charlie is the kind of anvil salesman you’d definitely want to steer clear of; when he starts to get close to Marian, Mr. Locci comes off as genuinely slimy and a real threat to her safety! This Charlie has an ax to grind alright, but his motive is to hurt Harold, not save the townspeople from being swindled.
Director Kevin Connell and choreographer Tracy Wilson have their work cut out for them with such a large number of children in the ensemble; and yet, everyone has their own space and something to do, even when the action extends into the auditorium and within the aisles. While there may not be a lot of complexity to much of the dancing, everyone seems to be doing their part and appear glad to be there. The production moves quite well, and that includes the moments when there are forty people on the stage, which is no small achievement.The set is made up of three panels to the left that represent the colors of American flag, a large newspaper advertisement that serves as the pool hall in the center, and the Paroo home to the right. The Paroo’s house swings around to reveal the living room and is quite well-executed; the vintage ad being on the building for the pool hall looks quite odd, and the panels to the left that rotate to reveal books (for the library) leave a lot to be desired. Still, Jennifer Sansfacon’s lighting brings a surprising array of colors to scenes; the cues shift subtly to support the action at hand, a highlight being the pastel blues, pinks, and greens during “Shipoopi” and some other crowd numbers. Ms. Sansfacon also keeps the entire stage dark save for a single light several times to focus the audience’s attention on the more intimate moments.
There is a lot of joy to be found in Weathervane Playhouse’s The Music Man; I honestly think one would have to put forth effort not to have a good time. The overall positive, cheerful effect of this production far outweighs its relatively minor deficits. This is family entertainment that isn’t icky sticky sweetness, yet it also isn’t trying to be “hip” and alienate half of the audience. The Music Man exists in a specific time and place, and how nice it is to see it live in a production as happy as this one.
*** 1/4 out of ****
The Music Man continues through to July 9th in the Weathervane Playhouse at 100 Price Road in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/meredith-willsons-the-music-man/