PERRY — Driving up Highway 89 past lush orchards, quaint farm stands, and older homes, the keen theatre patron can find the charming Heritage Theatre tucked away and ready to enchant. Their current production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man takes viewers back in time to the small town of River City, Iowa circa 1912. The book, music, and lyrics penned by Willson are based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey. They tell the story of the slick traveling salesman, Harold Hill, who cons his way through naive small towns with promises of putting together a boys’ band but skips out with full pockets before a note is ever played.
The play originally opened on Broadway in 1957 and has won five Tony Awards, a Grammy Award, been made into the classic 1962 film, and a 2003 television adaptation. The play is frequently produced by countless theatres, from professional to community, because of its enduring themes and memorable songs.
Heritage Theatre’s version, under the direction of Marilyn Olsen Whipple, offers an enjoyable night out full of excellent singing, but it left me feeling a little cheated in a few small ways. The Music Man is generally a very large production mounted on huge stages, but it was excellently directed by Whipple and molded to fit into the intimate Heritage stage. The set design by Michele McGarry and Steve Gray was straight forward and minimalist. On one side of the stage was the window to the Billiard Hall and the window to the Library building was set on the other. All of the other locations were set with a few well-placed pieces to not overcrowd the space.
Upon meeting the law-bending protagonist Harold Hill, played by Tad Wilson, I wanted to root for Harold. Wilson came across as genuine and earnest, which didn’t always jive with the smooth-talking swindler Wilson was meant to portray but was certainly endearing in his relationship with Marian. In many songs, Wilson lended a strong tenor voice that carried and blended well. However, Wilson did fall a little flat in his diction of the iconic song, “Ya Got Trouble,” which needed clear articulation and rhythm. Wilson also seemed to struggle in the large group dance numbers, looking far more stressed about the steps than suave and commanding of the situation. When dancing in partners, Wilson seemed much more relaxed and comfortable. His scene wooing “Marian the Librarian” had much better dancing and excellent tone and feeling in the song. His chemistry with Marian, portrayed exquisitely by Karlie Clark, was strong and believable.
Clark played Marian to perfection. Her soprano voice was powerful as she belted the extremely high notes with confidence. She made the transition from frigid to fawning believable during key moments, such as when she listened to her brother speak eagerly about his new coronet. By the end of the play, Marian’s love for Harold was written across Clark’s face as she performed the iconic ballad, “Till There Was You.” Unfortunately, there was a small technical issue with the mics when Wilson came and joined in the duet, but it was quickly resolved, and the harmony was excellent.
These two main characters, Harold and Marian, were supported by a superb ensemble. The group numbers were generally my favorite. Music directors Kelli Morris and Annette Whitaker had each of the large group numbers excellently balanced. Harold formed a barbershop quartet from the school board, played by Roger Ellis, Craig Whitaker, Eric Sadler, and Michael Clark. These four men were remarkable and were a highlight of the show in their numbers, “Sincere,” and, “Lida Rose,” and in teaming up with the women of the play on, “Pick-A-Little/Goodnight Ladies.”
I enjoyed Noelle Willes Sadler’s (as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn) humor as she led the women in town as the wife of Mayor Shinn. Sadler was joined by Stacey Keller, Jenn Christensen, Rebecca Genther, and Maren Bishop in, “Pick-A-Little,” which was sung with great articulation. The women were particularly funny when they formed their society and performed their interpretation of a Grecian urn pose.
The Mayor, played by Greg Lemke, was a little lackluster. A few lines were forgotten, and an entrance was very late, which caused a few lagging moments in the pace of the evening. However, it is difficult to play a villain who is an upstanding entrepreneur and civil servant trying to protect his town from a charlatan protagonist. The excellence of the book usually sells this aspect, but Lemke didn’t quite get there.
Harold’s former partner in shenanigans was Marcellus Washburn (played by Quinton Geilman) who helps him to pull off the con in his new home of River City. Geilman was funny and engaging as a sidekick, but his voice was slightly overpowered during his solos in, “Shipoopi.”
The ensemble of young actors was impressive. The chorus singing was wonderfully balanced and did not shrink under the fast-paced dancing. Choreographers Ellie Jensen, Brianna Farr Taylor, and Drew N. Angelovic created choreography that was bursting with movement and precision. Working within the small stage, the dance scenes were full of zest during each of the toe-tapping marching tunes, and the dancers were mostly in sync with each other throughout the night.
While the show does contain a few foibles, overall it is a strong production of this well-beloved classic. I have been to the Heritage Theatre before, and I am once again astounded that a community theatre production is abounding with so much strong musical talent. The range required is vast, and the intricate harmonies written in are challenging; I am in awe of the vocal prowess of many of the actors (specifically Clark and the barbershop quartet).
Professor Harold Hill gives one of my favorite quotes when he tells Marian, “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to make today worth remembering.” This version of The Music Man is certainly an evening worth remembering, and I would recommend it as a fun, family-friendly evening.