Is there a better time than now to escape to Meredith Willson’s musical comedy safe-haven of River City, Iowa in 1912? And is there a better place to do it than at the Porthouse amphitheater, summer home of the Equity actor-enhanced productions of Kent State University’s musical theater program?
“The Music Man” tells the wholesome tale of a small, simple Iowa town during a simpler time that is set upon by a charismatic conman, Harold Hill. Posing as a professor of music, his plan is to convince the stubborn but hopelessly naïve and shamelessly optimistic townspeople that they desperately need a boys marching band and then sell the folks instruments, uniforms and music books, but not the skills to use them, before escaping on the next outbound train.
In true musical comedy fashion, the town is rejuvenated by Hill’s lust for life and the flim-flammer’s askew moral compass is realigned by the love of a good woman, the librarian Marian Paroo and not the “sadder but wiser” girls he is used to in his travels.
Add to the mix remarkably hummable music and particularly memorable lyrics in songs the likes of “Goodnight, My Someone” and it is easy to understand how this play took home nearly every Tony Award – and beat out “West Side Story” for Best Musical – when it premiered on Broadway in 1957.
This is just the kind of time-honored classic that is squarely in the wheelhouse of director Terri Kent, choreographer John Crawford-Spinelli and music director Jonathan Swoboda, who opt for sincerity in their depiction of these people and their world rather than the satire often attempted by too many others.
All of their engaging enterprise takes place in and around scenic designer Nolan O’Dell’s two-tier gazebo from which every one of the town’s locations – the library, the park, the town hall, the Paroo’s parlor – emerge, gorgeously lit by Jason Potts.
Production numbers – particularly “Ya Got Trouble,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” and “Shipoopi” (delivered with great joy by Ryan Scoble as Hill’s sidekick, Marcellus) – are highlights that explode with the contagious energy of a young, very talented and always enchanting ensemble, supported by a superb 11-piece orchestra. And the clever musical segues provided by the town’s make-shift Barbershop Quartet (Tim Culver, Sam Johnson, Morgan Thomas-Mills and Jay White) – the litmus test for any “Music Man” staging – are wonderful. Everything is enriched by Brittney Harrell’s period-appropriate and often playful eye-candy costuming.
The role of fast-talking Harold Hill is indelibly stamped with the mark of its originator, Robert Preston. But Thom Christopher Warren’s charm and roguishness add layers to the character and his lovely voice and Broadway-honed stage presence make him an absolute pleasure to look at and listen to. His delightful “Seventy-Six Trombones” wins over the audience as easily as it does River City townsfolk.
Emma Sohlberg’s gorgeous voice and impressive vocal range are perfect for the role, but the hard and somewhat manic demeanor she has created for Marian keeps her from being truly effective as a romantic lead. This Marian seems a tad uncomfortable in her own skin, rather than just a lonely outcast in her community, which makes it tougher to understand Hill’s attraction to her, her attraction to him, and her abrupt second act acquiesce to his charms.
Still, her lovely 11th-hour “Till There Was You” – the musical’s emotional climax – is everything it needs to be.
Impressive character work is turned in by Bernadette Hisey as Marian’s mother, the Widow Paroo, as well as Rohn Thomas, Molly McGinnis, Taylor Fox and the effervescent Hallie Walker as the comically pompous Mayor Shinn and his family.
“The Music Man’s” nostalgic look back at Iowa in 1912, from the perspective of the 1950s, calls out for Americans to breathe deep, sing in harmony and fall hopelessly in love. This message rings loud and clear 60 years later in this delightful Porthouse production.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio Society of Professional Journalists best critic.