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Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

The Music ManAsolo Repertory Theatre
William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's reviews of Dike and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

and Cast
Photo by Cliff Roles
Once again, Asolo Repertory Theatre has turned to a classic American musical to open its season, this time Meredith Willson's The Music Man in a superlative production that breathes new life into this classic.

I would have no problem listing The Music Man among the greatest musicals ever written, with its great story, which is carried forward by a score composed of one fantastic song after another, and a wide array of lovable characters. It is also one of my favorite musicals, not necessarily the same thing. I have not seen a first class production since my very long ago youth, when I saw Forrest Tucker in the road tour of the original production. The Music Man remains one of the most produced musicals, with two New York revivals (1980, with Dick Van Dyke, and 1998, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, starring Craig Bierko), two movie versions (1962, with Robert Preston recreating his Broadway role, and 2003, on network TV with Matthew Broderick). Until now, almost everyone attempting to do The Music Man has done so in a naturalistic production with someone attempting to be as much like the original star as possible.

Bravo to Asolo Rep for hiring a first rate director, Jeff Calhoun, assisted by choreographer Paul McGill, who has the courage to attempt a fresh look at this intrepid piece, allowing his performers to give wonderful and suddenly fresh again characters new interpretations. Robert Preston is no longer with us, so why not let someone bring their own performing skills to one of the greatest roles in musical theater? Calhoun doesn't veer too far from what Willson imagined; the only adjustments are in a couple of the dance charts to allow our Harold Hill, Noah Racey, to dance as he does best, tap.

At the performance I attended, the energy at Asolo Rep was tangible, the audience clapping along with the short version of the overture, "Seventy-Six Trombones." The energy never let up for the next 2-½ hours of musical comedy heaven.

Noah Racey's Harold Hill has charm to spare, so it's not hard to understand the town of River City, Iowa, falling for his wiles. He moves differently than any Harold Hill I have seen, as he taps from one place to another, and it's all part of his body language. (Early on in the development of The Music Man the authors approached Ray Bolger about playing the lead. If he had done so, his Harold Hill would have moved like Racey's, but Bolger had a darkness in his aura that would not have worked for this character.) Racey is also dressed in really snazzy outfits that mesh with his interpretation.

I doubt I have to say this, but Racey's dancing is outstanding, his acting fine, most of his singing as good as it needs to be (Harold Hill is not a part that requires a strong singer), but on opening night he had some pitch problems during "Marian the Librarian."

Britney Coleman plays Marian, and bravo to Calhoun and Asolo for the color blind-casting of the show. Her singing is incandescent, and her finale of "My White Knight" justifiably brought the house down. In the wrong hands, Marian can become an insipidly dull ingenue, but Ms. Coleman provides enough spunk so that doesn't happen. Alison England is Marian's mother, Mrs. Paroo, with the stereotypical brogue that you could cut it with a butter knife, in a warm, endearing performance. Marian's brother Winthrop is delightfully played by Charles Shoemaker, who has been seen on multiple stages in the area to good avail.

Harold Hill's old pal Marcellus Washburn is played by Danny Gardner. He and racey appeared together in Noah Racey's Pulse, which was a dance show. When they get together for "The Sadder But Wiser Girl," magic occurs. A play-off is written into the show, but a full-out encore would have been appropriate for the audience's reaction.

Mayor Shinn is played by Lenny Wolpe, sounding a bit like Mr. Feldzieg, a character he has played in The Drowsy Chaperone. Wolpe handles the vocabulary comedy very well. In a bit of unusual casting, Eulalie McKechnie Shinn is played by Matthew McGee. This is yet another in a long line of great comic turns by this Tampa Bay favorite. The "Pick a Little" women are sassy and include Lizzie Hagstedt, Jenny Kim-Godfrey, Betsy Padamonsky and Jade Turner.

The four members of the school board turned barbershop quartet do as fine a job vocally as I have ever heard, post the original Broadway cast album. They are from top to bottom, range-wise, Branch Woodman as Jacey Squires, Jack Doyle as Ewart Dunlop, Joseph Torello as Olin Britt, and Mel Johnson, Jr. as Oliver Hix. They blend like they have been together for years, able to slide the pitch up or down at the end of a song.

Marie DiNorcia and Raynor Rubel play the juvenile couple Zaneeta Shin and Tommy Djilas. They are adorable, but they lose their dance specialty in "Seventy-Six Trombones." Their moment in "Shipoopi" shows us what we didn't get earlier in the show.

All the rest of the ensemble and band kids are terrific, as are the three featured dance couples. Thirty cast members are listed in the program, the largest cast yet for an Asolo Rep musical.

Costume and scenic design is by Tobin Ost. The costumes are a major presence in the dazzlingly colorful look of the production, and the scenic design is true to Jeff Calhoun's less naturalistic vision. The big budget that only Asolo Rep can afford is all over this gorgeous production. Lighting design by Michael Gilliam is also a plus. Hair, wig and makeup design by Michelle Hart is up to her always very high standards, important in establishing the historical period.

The 10-piece band led by Steve Orich is enough to fill The Mertz Theatre with, as Harold Hill says in "Seventy-Six Trombones," "something akin to the electric thrill I once enjoyed."

Asolo Repertory Theatre continues on a roll with this exciting, re-imagined production of The Music Man. It is perfect family fare, frankly perfect for anyone. Get your tickets quickly—in a couple of weeks they are going to be hard to come by.

The Music Man, through December 29, 2018, at the Mertz Theater in the FSU Center, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information, call the box office at 941-351-8000 or visit

Cast (in alphabetical order):
John Wilson Bennett: Constable Locke
Sophia Cavalluzzi: Band Kid
Ben Chavez*: Ensemble
Lamar K. Cheston*: Charlie Cowell
Britney Coleman*: Marian Paroo
Jack Doyle*: Ewart Dunlop/Ensemble
Blair Ely: Ensemble
Alison England*: Mrs. Paroo/Ensemble
Danny Gardner*: Marcellus Washburn
Lizzie Hagstedt*: Ethel Toffelmeier/Ensemble
Lawrence James: Conductor
Liam Johnson*: Ensemble
Mel Johnson, Jr.*: Oliver Hix/Ensemble
Jenny Kim-Godfrey: Mrs. Squires/Ensemble
Kailani Brianna Maeda: Gracie Shinn
Matthew McGee*: Eulalie Shinn
Henry Mills: Band Kid
Betsy Padamonsky: Alma Hix/Ensemble
Tanner Pflueger: Ensemble
Noah Racey*: Harold Hill
Charles Shoemaker: Winthrop Paroo
Hannah Jean Simmons*: Ensemble
Milaan Smith: Amaryllis
Joseph Torello*: Olin Britt/Ensemble
Jade Turner: Maud Dunlop/Ensemble
Erin Weinberger: Ensemble
Lenny Wolpe*: Mayor George Shinn
Branch Woodman*: Jacey Squires/Ensemble
Asher Woomert: Band Kid
*=Member of Actors' Equity Association

Musicians (in alphabetic order):
Aric Brian: Trumpet 1
Christine Allen Bruno: Keyboard
Nick Bruno: Percussion
Dave A. DeWitt: Trombone
Tom Ellison: Reed 1
Judy Glover: Piano
Ally Jenkins: Violin
Harley Sommerfeld: Reed 2
Bill Swartzbaugh: Bass