Review: “The Music Man” with Book, Music & Lyrics by Meredith Willson. Produced by the 5th Avenue Theatre. Music Direction by Joel Fram. Choreography by Bob Richard. Directed by Bill Berry. With Noah Racey, Laura Griffith, Anne Allgood, Richard Gray, Darragh Kennan, Laura Kenny and Jeff Steitzer. Now through March 10, 2013 at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
I’m really picky when it comes to productions of Meredith Willson’s classic musical, “The Music Man”, the delightful slice of Americana about a conman who attempts to bilk a 1912 Iowa town out of its cash by promising to create a boys band but instead finds love with the local librarian. Like a large chunk of the population over the age of 45 or so, I’ve seen the movie version more than once but to add to my “TMM” cred, I’ve also BEEN in two different productions and as the leading man, Harold Hill in one of them. Ya want proof?
Yep. That’s Mr. Strangeways in all his Brady Bunch permed afro glory circa 1981 in his high school production. As a non-singer and non-dancer, I worked my much smaller ass off on that role, coming in BEFORE school for extra vocal rehearsals with the music teacher, the divine Mildred Appleoff. And, if I say so myself, I was pretty bloody fantastic…for a non-musically and non-choreographically inclined 18 year old in a tiny, Nebraska rural high school production of “The Music Man”. And, as a bass, I’m very proud that I managed to hit the high note in “Goodnight My Someone”…barely.
So, I carry a big yardstick when it comes to measuring up any new production of “TMM” and I suspiciously brought it along to the 5th Avenue Theatre last week to check out their sparkly new production starring Noah Racey and Laura Griffith and I’m pleased to report…they did good. True, the 5th Avenue has the advantage of a budget that probably equals the entire yearly budget for the Falls City Public School District…the wigs alone cost more than the entire FFA program. They also have a stable of seasoned professional designers, actors, and staff on hand to spend all that lovely money but the presence of talented people and big bucks does not always result in terrific theater. The 5th Avenue’s production of “Damn Yankees” last year had all that and it was still a bit of a snooze.
But, this lavishly produced and designed show manages to satisfy the eye and the ear…at least most of the time. It has ridiculously beautiful costumes from Gregory A. Poplyk; an enchanting set design from Martin Christoffel; a lush lighting design from Tom Sturge and the usual gorgeous hair and make-up from Mary Pyanowski. The orchestra and musical direction from Joel Fram are superb and as for director Bill Berry, he seems to be on a roll…his stage composition is getting very sharp and sophisticated and there are some lovingly but carefully crafted and composed scenes in this show. It has a lot of verve and kick to it.
And, that’s where we get to my header. The chief highlight of this Music Man is in its truly brilliant choreography from Bob Richard. There’s certainly been a tendency in the last twenty years for new musicals to shy away from traditional choreography and large choruses of dancers so it’s always a treat to revisit a Golden Era Musical with very defined big dance numbers and a ginormous team of dancers hoofing their little hearts out. Mr. Richards’ choreography is razor sharp, athletic and joyously exciting and the entire cast gets put through its paces. In lesser hands, old school musicals with their cornier than thou songs and dance numbers can sometimes end up flat and out of date, but the big numbers in “TMM” just soar and you don’t have to be a dance aficionado to get goose pimples at the pleasures of the big numbers like “Iowa Stubborn” or “The Wells Fargo Wagon” or “Marian the Librarian” or the silly but divine “Shipoopi”. Both the choreography and the execution of these dances are exceptional and a major highlight of the evening and the credit belongs to Mr. Richards and his team of dancers.
There’s more to love in this “Music Man” as well, including the comedic charms of Jeff Steitzer as the blustering Mayor Shinn and the scene chewingingly hysterical performance of Laura Kenny as Mrs. Shinn…both are terrific but Ms Kenny pretty much grabs the attention and the audience’s love and runs out the door with it and down 5th Avenue every time she makes an entrance on the stage. Meanwhile, Anne Allgood charms as Marian’s wise Irish mother and Darragh Kennan schemes vindictively as Charlie Cowell, the salesman rival to our hero. The entire company is strong down to the smaller roles, with young Joshua Feinsilber winning audience approval as the lisping Winthrop and Gabriel Corey impressing us with superb dance skills as the town’s bad kid Tommy Djilas…he might be a punk in River City, but he deserves a scholarship to Juillard.
As for our leads, Noah Racey as conman Harold Hill and Laura Griffith as the suspicious local librarian, Marian Paroo, they were both fine in their acting, though Mr. Racey’s Hill could frankly be a bit more oily, but they both seemed to have some vocal issues with the singing. Ms Griffith was a bit…what’s a nice way to say this? Well, frankly she seemed a bit shrill and “cold” in her singing…their wasn’t a lot of vocal warmth to the performance which was a shame because acting wise, she makes a lovely Marian.
Noah Racey is a charming and charismatic actor and a superb dancer…his Harold Hill is more Gene Kelly than Robert Preston but vocally…it wasn’t very pretty. Judging by the roughness of his voice on opening night and the rather shocking way he avoided certain notes, I can only guess he was having vocal or medical issues that prevented him from going full throttle on the score. Vocally, the role isn’t that adventurous; many of Hill’s songs are patter songs, more talk singing than actual singing but Mr. Racey made a concentrated effort to avoid hitting any note higher than his waist. It doesn’t ruin his performance or the show, but it was disappointing and hopefully an issue that will correct itself if it’s health related.
Other than a few strained notes, this “Music Man” is a charmer…it’s family fun but especially if your family appreciates brilliantly delivered dance numbers and the delights of Meredith Willson’s classic score. (And, fans of “Downton Abbey” era fashion will want to jump on stage and grab those delicious costumes right off the backs of the actors…there’s a striped suit worn by one of the townspeople that Mr. Strangeways COVETS!)
And, we’ll close this review and trip down Memory Lane with another photo from my high school production…obviously not a “posed” production photo but an unfortunately timed candid, it apparently illustrates the saddest Marian and Harold Hill in the history of American theater.
Or, maybe we were just exhausted…have you ever performed “Ya Got Trouble”? That song is a sonovabitch to perform!