SYRACUSE — The Music Man, by Meredith Wilson, is an iconic piece of musical theater. I never lived a world without The Music Man. The video was a staple in my home, and when I was five years old my entire family was in a church production of the play. The songs are as familiar to me as the street I grew up on.
The story is simple. A traveling salesman, a.k.a. a con man, comes to River City, Iowa, in order to start a marching band, enticing parents to buy expensive instruments, instruction books, and band uniforms. While in the town, as is the case in many musicals, hearts and minds are changed, and they all live happily ever after. The story of The Music Man is not monumental, but something about it has stood the test of time. It has won over the hearts and minds of millions, and even won the coveted Best Musical Tony award, beating out the masterpiece West Side Story. Tonight’s performance done by Syracuse City helped me understand why this show still remains a favorite 50 years after its debut.
Director Liz Christensen put together a wonderful cast of talent. Of particular note is Professor Hill, played by Ryan Snarr, who has a lovely Baritone voice, the type you expect to hear sing “Seventy-Six Trombones”. When he began to sing “Trouble” I was thrilled to hear that he had the type of voice and character one has come to expect out of Harold Hill. Mariah H. Bailey plays a lovely Marian, and her voice is soothing, crisp and clean. One of my favorite dynamics was the interaction between Marian and her mother, Mrs. Paroo, played masterfully and humorously by Kasja E. Nelson. The scene in which mother and daughter argue to the tune of Amaryllis’s piano lesson had not only perfect comedic timing. It also had a complete charm that helped you believe that this really was a mother concerned that her daughter would end up a spinster, and a daughter who felt that her mother just did not understand. In fact, all of the leads seemed to carry their parts well. Jason Doman had me smiling every time he walked on stage as Marcellus Washburn, and many people in the theater had his or her toes taping during “Shipoopi.”
Technically, three elements stood out to me as being exceptional for a community theater production. The first, and perhaps most surprising element, was the orchestra, brilliantly conducted by Shaun Davis. I understand the difficulty of assembling a full orchestra for a community production, and have seen many community theaters instead use premade performance tracks. Meredith Willson’s The Music Man is one show that is truly defined by its big band numbers such as “Seventy-Six Trombones,” and Davis and the wonderful musicians he has assembled proved equal to the task of providing the essential backdrop of music.
Second, I was highly impressed by the costume designs by Nita Smith. Often in community theater one can see that costumes were thrown together quickly, and very little attention has been paid to uniformity, color, and flow. Not so with The Music Man. Smith has really added to the visual spectacle by creating uniformity between young people, dancers, and families.
Finally, the choreography and staging were quite ingenious. The cast of The Music Man in Syracuse was quite large, and this could have resulted in awkward staging and choreography. Credit is due to the two choreographers, Kurt Christensen and Siri Elkins, for finding and highlighting great dancing talent, as well as offering a large cast with many young children dance steps that were entertaining and executed well. Director Liz Christensen certainly seems to understand how to fill a stage, and how to add background action that adds immensely to the production while not detracting from the story. In particular, the songs “Marian the Librarian” and “Shipoopi” were completely enjoyable to watch, and were probably twice as fun to perform.
However, while watching the show, it was not the characters that stood out to me, rather the make up of the cast itself, and how it represented the best of community theater. While combing through the program, I noticed many listings of families—mothers, fathers, and children—all choosing to spend their summer learning dance steps and songs, rather than watching TV and playing at the pool. I listened to the people behind me excitedly talk about seeing their neighbors show off talents in a way never seen before, and I was reminded that this is what community theater is about. It is about understanding that the person who bags your groceries is more than just an empty face.
In our world today, we have lost some sense of community. We may live in the same town, but spend our days commuting to other locations for work, and many of our closest friends are only accessed digitally. In this world, our sense of community has changed, and perhaps even been lost in some way. Community theater productions like Syracuse City’s The Music Man work to preserve that community. Sometimes theater is used to inspire and to educate, but sometimes it is used for something more. I am sure that the families that spent their summer preparing for tonight’s performance have grown closer to one another, and gained great friends in the process. Community theater is also used to inspire young people to use their creativity, something desperately needed in an age of instant gratification. I was lucky enough to bring my young daughter to this performance, and from the moment she whispered to me, “Mommy, what is the trouble they are singing about?” I knew that her mind was awakening to the magic of the performing arts.
Of course there were the little glitches one can expect from a community production, from small frustrations with the sound system to little ones waving at Grandma rather than being in character. These things actually add to the ambiance of the show, reminding us that it is our friends and neighbors choosing to use their precious time to entertain us. I encourage all of you to go to see The Music Man, and remember what it was like to have a sense of community. Although we may no longer live life in an idyllic River City, basic humanity never changes, and that is the main purpose of community theater: to remind us of our humanity.