AMERICAN FORK — The Music Man is an enduring American musical classic and has been a staple of both big and small theater companies since it first swept through Broadway in 1957, earning a Tony over West Side Story for Best Musical, along with Tony honors for Robert Preston and Barbara Cook. The faithful film adaptation five years later won an Academy Award for Best Musical Score and a nomination for Best Picture.
With its central theme of love, community and the power of music and dreams, it’s obvious why so many community theaters treasure it. Plus The Music Man requires a huge cast, ranging from kids to retirees, so there’s a guaranteed audience full of gleeful family and friends for the show to inflict its infectious joy and energy. Then combine some of the most memorable songs in musical theater history, including “Till There Was You” (the only show tune ever covered by the Beatles), with author Meredith Willson’s affectionately nostalgic view of turn-of-the-century Iowa, and The Music Man becomes a well-crafted, irresistible musical valentine to Smalltown, U.S.A. Even non-fans of the genre could be won over by The Music Man’s spell.
Veteran Director Buddy Youngreen, who began the sorely missed Sundance Summer Theatre series, has assembled a joyous ensemble of nearly 80 players of varying ages — and with varying talents — for the ambitious production by the American Fork and Highland City Arts Councils. Each of the choral selections, under the musical direction of Katie Tenney, sounded as wonderfully buoyant as they should, and the ensemble’s enthusiasm spilled over into the appreciative audience that clapped along through each familiar musical interlude.
The production featured a live pit band, under the firm baton of Merrillee Hunter, with 18 members of the American Fork Symphony Orchestra — with mixed levels of success. Also, to heighten the transformation of the River City Boys’ Band, the American Fork High School Marching Band precisely closed the show. The band’s 240 members lead the big parade down the high school auditorium’s four aisles performing the boisterous signature song “Seventy Six Trombones.”
Director Youngreen has choreographer Cody Jordan at his side to enliven the ensemble, and Jordan wisely pares the cast of dancers down for the show’s large second-act dance spectacle, “Shipoopi.” Even when the large group playing the town’s youngsters is corralled for “Marian the Librarian,” the dancers are largely successful with the impressive choreography. Jordan is also to be singled out for high praise for his jubilant performance as Tommy Djilas, the town’s rebel bad boy who learns to lead the fledging but brightly uniformed boys’ band. Along with partner Brittany Gray as the mayor’s eldest daughter Zaneeta Shin, Jordan is a standout dancer.
Another exceptionally good performance is delivered by Helen McCurdy Berrett in a part — if you don’t mind my sayin’ so — she appears to have been born to play as the Irish-born mother, Mrs. Paroo. Comic performances are also offered by Joel A. Osborne as the befuddled Mayor Shinn and Audrey Barron as the mayor’s wife, Gracie Shinn; and her Grecian Urn performers and the Pick-A-Little Ladies.
Without a bad song in the show and with wonderful performances from its lead actors, there’s no question that The Music Man can be enchanting.
The director appears to have been bogged down by the sheer volume of on-stage performers, and the quick pace of the musical numbers tends to slacken when the music stops. He is not helped by the lackadaisical portrayal of what should be a vivaciously energetic performance of Marc Haddock as slipperly music-instrument salesman Harold Hill. Haddock was recently quite effective as Pa in the Hale Center Theater Orem production of April Ann and was an appropriately weary Hucklebee in last summer’s wondrous The Fantisticks at Sundance. But he is unable to imbue the character with the magnetism and charisma that the role requires. Haddock struggles with the rapid-fire patter of “Ya Got Trouble” and even what should be a less challenging “The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl For Me.”
With her bright soprano voice, Jeanice Woodbrey’s solos were lovely in her role as the repressed Librarian Marian Paroo, and her yearning for “just someone to love me” in “My White Knight” was particularly appealing. Woodbrey’s acting ability is challenged when she must show Marian’s shifting inner feelings. This was especially apparent in scenes opposite Haddock, who offered little spark to ignite energy as her suitor.
An interesting footnote to end this review: The inspiration for the name of the lead character was Marian Seeley, who has been a resident of Provo. Mrs. Seeley and Meredith Willson became good friends while Willson was stationed in California during World War II. He found her job as a medical records librarian and dubbed her “Marian the Librarian.” In 2006, when the Center Street Musical Theatre in Provo produced The Music Man, the town proclaimed a “Marian Seeley Day.”