MAGNA — Meredith Willson‘s The Music Man is one of the most beloved of all American musicals. I personally think it’s one of the top five greatest. It has been a hit since it first opened in 1957 on Broadway with Robert Preston as the unflappable con man Harold Hill and Barbara Cook as prim librarian Marian Paroo.
The musical tells the tale of a traveling salesman/con man Harold Hill, who works his con by selling boys bands to towns, complete with instruments, uniforms, and instruction booklets, promising to organize the band. The problem is he doesn’t know anything about music. He runs into trouble in the town of River City, Iowa, where the librarian and piano teacher, Marian Paroo, neither trusts his credentials nor initially falls for his attempts at seduction. Through it all, we meet the fine citizenry of River City and get to know the quirks and foibles of this small, opinionated and closed-off community. Eventually, barriers are broken down, long-held beliefs are changed, and love conquers all.
The current production at the Empress Theatre captures the charm that is inherent in this show. Eric Barney as Harold Hill is wonderful in his ability to make a potentially dislikeable character into an instant charmer. He handles the daunting singing requirements with ease, including the songs, “Trouble,” “Sadder but Wiser Girl,” and “76 Trombones.” April Henderson as Marian Paroo is also a beautiful singer, handling the soaring high notes of “Goodnight My Someone,” and “My White Knight.” Her acting at first, on opening night, started off a little shaky, but she definitely warmed into the part by Act Two.
Other standouts in the cast include Nanny McKenzie as Mrs. Shinn, the Mayor’s wife, Marcus H. Rood as Mayor Shinn, and the Gossip/Del Sarte ladies. McKenzie was so delightfully uppity with a hidden mischievious side. Marcus H. Rood carried off the bombast that the character requires with great charm. These two characters can often be over-played in an attempt to get cheap laughs, and thankfully this did not happen. If anything, Mrs. Shinn could have been played a bit bigger. The gossip/Del Sarte ladies were wonderful every time they were on stage and were pulled off “Pick a Little/Talk a Little” with gusto. Tommy Djilas (Jeremy Heaps) and Zaneeta Shinn (Jessica Johnson) were excellent as the featured dancers in “Marion the Librarian” and “Shipoopi.” They are both very talented dancers.
Of course, the other big element of the show is the quartet of school board members played by Michael Johnson, Curtis Fred Nash, Joey Duckworth, and Charles Whitehead. Overall, they did an admirable job on “Sincere” and “Good Night Ladies.” Their big number, “Lida Rose,” suffered a few pitch problems, but these were not so great as to ruin what is easily one of the best-loved songs in the show. One point of problem for me, however, was double-casting one of the quartet members as Charlie the anvil salesman. There was not enough contrast between the two characters. Plus, the big black handlebar moustache made the smooth transition from one character to the other difficult for me.
Lighting design (not credited in program) was well done, highlighting the different spaces being portrayed. Costuming by Debora Searcy, Rebekah Socha, Linda Lyon, Kristina Fowler, Vicky Firth, Mary Ellen Smith, Peggy McCarty, Catherine Drake, Jennifer Nielsoen, and Brent Hulme, was also very well done and captured the time period very well (the only exception was the final dress for Marian; it looked like it had seen better days). The set design by Alyvia Wrathall, Shawn Maxfield, Jeremy Heaps, Michelle Brown, Bennie Nugter, Marie Nugter, Sasha Nugter, and Jakob Nugter, was brilliant and made great use of the Empress’ small bit versatile space.
I think probably my biggest complaint of the evening was the welcome and introduction by artistic director Shawn Maxfield when he let the audience know that the preview the previous night had had some rough spots. I felt it was a disservice to the cast, as no apology was necessary for this opening night performance.
Overall, this is a wonderful production of The Music Man by a vibrant community theatre. Not all voices are stellar, not all acting is Broadway calibre, but they are achieving great things in Magna.