The main hurdle you have to clear when putting on a show as well known as “The Music Man” is the fact that everybody in the audience has likely seen it before. If you’re going to make the material work, it has to be effervescent and full of energy, and Spokane Civic Theatre’s new production is both. This is the second time “The Music Man” has closed out a Civic season (it last happened in 2006), and it’s a fitting show for a grand finale.
This production of the Meredith Willson classic, directed by Tia Wooley, doesn’t reinvent or repurpose the material, and in sticking to the formula it leans heavily on the show’s inherent charms. It has so many musical numbers, goofy fringe characters and an unwavering sense of romanticism that make it a pretty hard show to resist.
It all begins as a traveling swindler known as “Professor” Harold Hill (Mark Pleasant) comes bounding into the small town of River City, Iowa, at the turn of the 20th century. He immediately gets the townspeople worked up about a pool hall that’s recently opened up, which will, he assures them, turn all the local boys into nogoodniks. His solution: He’ll sell them all musical instruments and uniforms and start a marching band. The problem: He doesn’t know the first thing about playing music.
Hill soon sets his eye on local librarian and piano teacher Marian Paroo (Alyssa Day), who isn’t exactly convinced of his supposed credentials. She’s also turned off by Hill’s romantic come-ons, though her staunch Irish mother (Jean Hardie) just wants her to get married already. Hill also starts to feel something resembling affection toward the townspeople, who quickly take to the idea of making River City a more musical town.
There’s not much suspense here – Harold Hill is, after all, one of the least villainous con artists in dramatic history – but the point of “The Music Man” is the music itself, and Willson’s score contains some of Broadway’s most memorable standalone songs. It’s difficult to deny the silly spirits of “Shipoopie,” to keep your foot still during “Seventy-Six Trombones,” to not swoon a bit at the romanticism of “Til There Was You,” which the Beatles famously covered.
I’ve always felt a nostalgic fondness toward “The Music Man,” though I have to admit that it’s always seemed a little bloated – amid all the classic musical numbers are a couple forgettable ones – and the second half drags significantly after the boundless energy of the first. And with a cast of 41, the Civic stage feels a little jam-packed at times, even though it is impressive that so many actors, many of them children, are involved in the production.
But Wooley makes a very smart decision in focusing as much on the show’s large tapestry of supporting characters as the burgeoning love story between Harold and Marian. She’s cast some of the Civic’s most reliable character actors as the colorful locals – Peter Hardie as the bumbling mayor, Kathie Doyle-Lipe (who also choreographed the show) as his spotlight-hungry wife, Charles Fletcher as Harold’s oldest friend – and they’re a blast to watch.
As for Pleasant and Day, they have a lot of chemistry together, and they’re both effortless in tricky roles. Pleasant lends his performance just enough of a smarmy edge to be a convincing Hill, and his rendition of “(Ya Got) Trouble,” Hill’s introductory song, is a showstopper. Day projects as much naïveté as intelligence as Marian, and her performance of “Will I Ever Tell You?” with the local barbershop quartet is one of the best musical moments in the show.
“The Music Man” is a refreshingly old-fashioned piece of theater, but it’s also deceptively difficult. Many of the songs require breathless delivery and choreography – the aforementioned “(Ya Got) Trouble” is head-swimmingly wordy – but Wooley’s actors throw themselves into the show, and the determination shows. “The Music Man” is big and boisterous, and I found it to be just as catchy as the first time I saw it.
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