Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Cowboy versus Samurai
As many times as I have personally seen the show, I experienced a week's build-up of excitement to see Broadway by the Bays latest staging of the ever-popular tale of the huckster Hill, The Music Man.I am happy to report that this production has the all brassiness, the barbershop harmonies, and the unabashed mixture of high jinx and sentimental sappiness that audiences from coast to coast have loved for the past sixty-one years.
Nicole Helfer directs a stage-filling cast of thirty-two, including a half-dozen kids who absolutely can sing, dance, and act to the hilt. The energy she generates with all the perfectly coordinated movement on, off, and around the stage just adds to the excitement and fun the show generates throughout. The wood-framed buildings of River City, Iowa designed by Mark Mendelson with 1912 Midwest, small-town charm in every nook and cornerflow in and out as townspeople go about their business while pulling, pushing, and turning around fences, buildings and a bridge. Their dress is early 20th century flowered hats, dresses of many yards of material, bow ties and straw hats, suits plaid and pants knickeredall part of Leandra Watson's colorful array of costumes. The sounds designed by Jon Hayward of trains, birds, and an approaching Wells Fargo wagon further make us in the audience feel we are smack dab in the middle of town, while the lighting of Eric "Precious" Johnson helps create both flair and fury as well as quiet and reflection as required. Overall, the production team reigns supreme in turning the Fox Theatre stage into a 1912 town where farmers, merchants, kids, and even traveling salesmen can feel at home.
One such salesman arrives with the plan to trick this community into believing "there is trouble in River City" for all its youngsters, mostly due to the arrival of a new billiard hall (that unfortunately for the salesman, happens to be owned by Mayor Shinn who does not cotton to the idea of his new pool table being singled out as sin-generating). Touting himself as "Professor" Harold Hill, having been a member of the Gary Conservatory of Music "class of aught-five," Hill proceeds quickly to convince the initially skeptical townspeople that band instruments, uniforms, and instructional books are the answer to all their town's "trouble with a capital 'T' and that rhymes with 'P' and that stands for pool." That he knows nothing about music is not a problem since he plans to slip out of town by a late-night train about the time he will have collected $800 and about the moment the townspeople realize his so-called "Think System" (no music practice required) has left them with instruments the kids cannot play.
But in this particular town, Professor Hill's proven scheme of swindle is about to run into a major flaw, and her name is Marian, the River City librarian. Not only is she suspicious from day one, she soon captures the Professor's heartsomething he had not planned would happen. And in the meantime, his bubbling, outgoing presence has changed a town of complainers and gossipers into one where townswomen are practicing for a Grecian dance performance, where school board members who hated each other are now inseparable as a singing quartet, and where the librarian's lisping, shy brother is loving his new coronet and talking up a storm to whoever will listen.
Watching in dance and hearing in song this story unfold is a total delight in this production. Chief among the reasons is the choreography designed by Nicole Heifer and executed flawlessly by a stage packed with energized dancers with varied moves of high kicks, soft shoe, dances in lines and in couples, and arms that fling, fly, and unfurl in exact coordination. With voices big and harmonious and with dancers of all ages, sizes and heights, the ensemble of townspeople stop the show in numbers like the rousing "Seventy-Six Trombones" and the eye-popping "Shipoopi."
Small-scale choreography is also noteworthy as the coordinated moves of the four school board members involving straw hats and in-line body bends, arm extensions, and foot dances only make their beautiful, barbershop blends even more impressive in "Sincere," "It's You, and of course, the perennially popular "Lida Rose." Derrick Contreras, Jonathan Chan, Daniel Lloyd Pias, and Mohamed Ismail are cute in their bow ties, flat hats, and suits of pastels. They are even cuter in their obsession of always being together and ready to break at any moment into four-part, close harmonies that swell like waves in volume and intensity up and down the musical scale.
Not to be outdone, the ladies of the town are vocally excellent and stars in their stage presence and antics as both the town's chicken-pecking gossips in "Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little)" and as draped dancers in their "Eulalie's Ballet" where they hilariously depict scenes from a Grecian urn. The ensemble of eight brings heart to their characters in the way each makes her character unique, quirky, and like the neighbor lady one might know next door.
Star-wise, Jennifer Mitchell sparkles as Marian Paroo, the librarian who is torn between a growing attraction for Harold Hill and the knowledge that much, if not all, of what he is touting and selling is a scam. Each time she sings, her lark-like voice is light, clear and sublime, with the ability to give notes impressively sustained and trembled emphasis, as well as to reach into high ranges with ease, grace and softness (as in "My White Night" and "Will I Ever Tell You?").
As Harold Hill, David Schiller has the revival evangelist fire in his belly to make "(Ya Got) Trouble" zing and pop. He is a good partner in the comic duet "The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl" with his scam-savvy friend from Yonkers, Marcellus (a hysterically funny Isaac Goldberg whose cartoon-worthy, tunnel-size mouth and half-dollar-size eyes match his rubbery movements of limbs that wobble and weave).
David Schiller's Hill is the glad-handing, quick-scheming artist whose face lights up like a neon sign every time he thinks of a new way to pull wool over the townspeople's eyes. Where his Harold does not shine so well is in some of his songs where Mr. Schiller's voice does not have the full depth, quality or power to deliver what the song requires. This is especially true when he is paired in duets with the much more equipped Jennifer Mitchell as Marian, where she over-powers him and makes songs like "Till There Was You" less then they could be otherwise.
No one could be more natural in her part than Jenny Matteucci is as Marian's mother Mrs. Paroo, a woman whose Irish brogue is thick, endearing and authentic. When she is in duet with Marian in "If You Don't Mind My Saying So," she sings in a voice both comic and strong with amazingly long phrases where no obvious breath is taken. Her young son Winthrop is also a natural as portrayed by Liam Kimhi, with a voice angelic and purethe recipient of the night's longest and loudest applause after his adorable yet spirited "Gary, Indiana."
And in this large cast, many others leave memorable moments. Scott Solomon is the righteous and ridiculous Mayor Shinn who nearly blows a gasket in flaying-arm exasperation with the town's (and his wife's) enthrallment with the so-called Professor. His wife Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, who goes from being blindly loyal to stubbornly independent of her dictating husband, is portrayed with both wonderful silliness and inner dignity by Amy Meyers. Their "ye gods!"-spouting and rebellious teen Zaneeta Shinn is amusingly played by Charlotte Kearns, while Andrew Plaschke plays her would-be boyfriendall-boy, good-hearted Tommy Djilaswhom her father sees only as a delinquent from the wrong side of the tracks.
After another visit to re-acquaint myself with all these good people of River City, it is all the clearer to me why Meredith Willson's The Music Man has remained so popular these past sixty years. The music that Harold Hill brings to a town that is mired in its own routines, rivalries and rituals transforms the town and all its inhabitants and ultimately changes him. Broadway by the Bay once again proves itself as the place to go to see yesteryear's musicals with a freshness as if only premiering today.
The Music Man, through April 1, 2018, by Broadway by the By at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City CA. Tickets are available at broadwaybythebay.org.