Is there a forgettable number, or even a so-so one, in The Music Man? I don’t think so. With The Music Man, composer and lyricist Meredith Willson created a Broadway show for the ages. And has it ever aged well.
Written in the 1950s, and based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey, the setting is an Iowa town at a time when people possessed a wholesome innocence and respectful civility. That sounds passé in our time, but the show remains highly appealing somehow. Could it be that today we secretly wish for a return to some of what characterized that earlier time? Virtues such as decency, chivalry and romance, to name a few? I think it’s possible.
The Music Man tells the story of likable con man Harold Hill, who puts together a boys’ band in a small Iowa town. He persuades all the parents that there is a critical need for such an endeavor and collects money for instruments, sheet music and uniforms. There are just two problems. Professor Hill can’t read a note of music nor play an instrument, and the town’s beautiful and well-educated librarian is also a music teacher who knows Hill’s a fraud. The rest is a touching tale of love, healing and character redemption.
So I couldn’t wait for Musical Theatre West to mount its production of what has always been one of my favorite musicals. When I heard that Davis Gaines was starring in the title role, I really got excited.
Gaines, one of the actor-singers who played the phantom on Broadway, has starred in several of MTW’s recent shows and has been off-the-charts fabulous in every one. Still, I worried just a little that even Gaines couldn’t equal the masterful job done by the show’s original star, Robert Preston. After all, in most people’s view, Preston and his singular iconic role have together become a symbiotic joining of unmatchable perfection. In other words, it’s quite an act to follow.
It turned out Gaines had another factor working against him– an injured arm. This meant that he will perform the role of the physically expressive Hill for the entire duration of the show’s run with one arm in a sling.
Gaines rose to the occasion in spades, even sounding like Preston much of the time. Still, I can’t help wondering what extraordinary Gaines dynamicism we might have missed given the limitation.
The female lead, played in the movie by a gorgeous young Shirley Jones, is another impossible act to follow. It took a little while for me to warm up to Gail Bennett, who is a thinner and less glamorous Marian the Librarian than Jones, but her extraordinary singing voice and ultimately strong chemistry with Gaines’s Hill won me over completely in the end.
Other highlights of the over 40-member cast were Rebecca Spencer, who played the mayor’s wife with endearing force and good nature, and Kevin Ciardelli, who, as young Winthrop, sang a brilliant lisp-accentuated “Gary, Indiana” while pulling off competent dance moves and minor acrobatics.
Cathy Newman is a congenial and motherly Widow Paroo, who does a wonderful job in the fast-paced “Piano Lesson” number. Matt Walker’s dynamic versatility stands out in his varied role as Hill’s sometime accomplice, and Christopher Utley is an almost sympathetic antagonist trying to bring Hill down.
A host of wonderful male and female dancers make the production numbers look easy. And numerous adorable, young children surprise with well executed dance moves, acrobatics and even solo vocals.
A barbershop quartet harmonizes mellifluously in wonderful numbers such as “Goodnight, Ladies” and “Lida Rose.” A beautiful stagecoach rolls onto the stage to depict the Wells Fargo Wagon in the energetic number of the same name.
Among the best songs are solo numbers “Will I Ever Tell You,” “Till There Was You,” and, of course, “Seventy-six Trombones.” All were beautifully sung by Gaines and Bennett.
Costumes by The Theatre Company were fantastic for their period appropriateness, detail, and bold color combinations. No credit was given for the architecturally well-detailed small town sets, which were positively stunning.
Jeff Maynard directs this terrific production, which was accompanied by full-pit orchestra under the direction of Corey Hirsch. The outstanding production numbers and other movement were choreographed by John Todd.
Musical Theatre West’s The Music Man continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton Street, on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, through March 2. Performances are Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm; Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $17 and can be purchased through the MTW box office at (562) 856-1999 x4 or online at musical.org .