OREM — Professor Harold Hill is on hand to bring the band to River City, and he does so quite literally in a uniquely staged finale. As a great classic in the repertoire of musical theatre, The Music Man comes to the Hale Center Theatre Orem to persuade its audience to cast away their troubles and join the band. Director and choreographer Jennifer Hill Barlow’s vision beautifully communicates the transformative nature of the piece. For as much as Professor Harold Hill changes the people of River City to see their talents, they change his perspective in return. Plus, the show is a feel-good musical celebration of humanity and Americana.
Serving as both director and choreographer for The Music Man feels like a natural decision for Barlow, as the musical has significant dance and movement throughout including several iconic group dance breaks. The production is impressive in the level of dance and variety in the entirety of the production from the more exuberant dance of “Shipoopi,” and then the romantic dance break of “Marian the Librarian,” to the subtler movement of the Barbershop Quartet numbers. The dance also manages to complement the singing skill and diction of the performers, instead of diminishing the performance of the music and lyrics. The choreography also informed the characters as they joined into the numbers. As Harold Hill leads the town, he also serves as the on-stage choreographer “teaching” the steps to the youth throughout the performance, particularly in “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Marian the Librarian.” While he may not be a band leader, these choices prove to make Harold Hill the pied piper of dance, demonstrating how such a character might appeal to the town.
Ryan Shepherd as Harold Hill had overwhelming energy and joy in this classic leading role. I am continually impressed by how much the script demands of Harold Hill, particularly in the first act, and was amazed by Shepherd’s boundless dedication to the performance as the dancing, singing, and acting. In this role, Shepherd brings an exuberance and smile that persuaded me that Harold Hill undeniably enjoys playing the role of the faux band leader. This is exceptionally fitting when Harold chooses to lead the River City band for the finale. In Shepherd’s performance was a decision to connect with the youth of River City, as shown in subtle staging decisions. This was most apparent in the sincerity in the relationship between Harold Hill and Winthrop Paroo (played by Wyatt Bills). In watching Shepherd’s performance, it was very natural to understand how River City would be thoroughly entranced with the traveling salesman and how Hill would eventually be persuaded to get “his foot caught in the door.” Shepherd’s Hill may not know the territory, but he certainly knows how to appeal to people.
Such an appeal certainly works to further the romance between Hill and Marian Paroo (played by Cecily Ellis-Bills). Ellis-Bills showcases a great transformation from a reserved librarian to a mature woman falling in love for the first time. Ellis-Bills presents how very capable Marian is as an educated, intelligent woman who uncovered the conman’s ruse and chose to conceal the discovery for personal reasons. It is a smart performance that conveys understanding of both Harold’s deceit and his potential.
The characters of River City are a delightful menagerie of performances. Of note is the school board who is revealed to have a talent for perfect harmony as a barbershop quartet and the Pick-a-Little ladies led by Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (the latter played by Bonnie Wilson Whitlock). Whitlock was fabulous, commanding the stage with ease, thanks to her strong personality and humor. Whitlock’s performance leading the rehearsal of the ladies’ classic dance “Grecian Urns” beginning Act Two was absolutely hysterical to the point I was unsure if the movement was rehearsed or simply Whitlock and the ladies improvising at the moment. It was so genuine in comedic humor.
The Hale Center Theatre Orem is entering into a final year in its intimate space of the theatre space in Orem before moving to the new Ruth Theatre in Pleasant Grove in Fall 2024. While it is exciting to imagine the potential of a new theatre space, I am curious what might be lost in leaving the current theatre with its associated challenges and charm. But until then, it is impressive to see how well the staging and set (designed by Jason Baldwin) work for a large-scale musical in a small space. In fact, the close quarters work well to bring the audience into the setting of River City, Iowa, with set pieces that function well throughout the scenes of the show.
The lightning (designed by Graham Whipple) was also effective in setting the mood of the scenes. For example, Whipple used a stark, white-toned light for the assembly scenes and the ending when the town has captured Hill, which then alters the mood by introducing a warmer light tone (including from some scenic hanging lanterns) as the town breaks out in a variety of musical numbers. The lighting also used a bluish, moonlit tone that was particularly effective in transitioning the library during the dance break of “Marian the Librarian” into a romantic, dreamlike space. This lighting previously was used with Marian in “Goodnight My Someone” and then additionally recurs during the footbridge lighting of “Till There Was You” strengthening the connections among these romantic moments.
With The Music Man at Hale Center Theater Orem, there is much to enjoy in this engaging, sincere, and technically thorough performance. Professor Harold Hill is not the only music man in town; the whole cast proves to be musically able and talented. While there are not literally 76 trombones on stage, there is a thrill of delight throughout this production of a familiar musical staple. Families, fans, and newcomers to the show will find humor, music, dance, and loads of talent as they enjoy an evening in River City, Iowa. “If you don’t mind my saying so,” audiences “ought to give Iowa a try.”