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vancouverplays review

 

preview image

— Production photos.

THE MUSIC MAN
Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson
Theatre Under the Stars
Malkin Bowl, Stanley Park
July 9-Aug. 18
$24-$44
1-877-840-0457 or www.ticketstonight.ca

In this can’t-make-up-its-mind summer weather we’ve been having, outdoor theatre is a tough sell. Attendance is down even at Bard on the Beach, which at least has tents to keep you dry. Theatre Under the Stars in roofless Malkin Bowl faces a special challenge.

On a cool, soggy, muddy evening at TUTS one night last week, a nice man wiped the water off my plastic chair and hot chocolate was discounted by a dollar for the small audience of intrepid theatergoers there to see The Music Man. I’m happy to report that we all got our money’s worth and more.

Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical tells the story of “Professor” Harold Hill, a shyster salesman who travels from town to town in turn-of-the-century Iowa. He sells the yokels musical instruments and uniforms for the boys’ marching band he’s supposedly forming, and romances their women. Then he marches himself out of town before they realize he knows nothing about music, leaving behind broken hearts and empty wallets. But Hill meets his match in River City’s Marian the librarian.

The Music Man is a joyful show, with a good song every five minutes and lots of distinctive, entertaining characters. Willson’s take on small-town Iowa is neither cynical nor sentimental, and director Sarah Rodgers finds the right comic tone for the usual huge TUTS cast of amateurs sprinkled with a few Equity pros. Dana Tekatch provides outstanding choreography for the fine young dancers, and Daren Herbert’s marvelous Harold Hill leads the big parade with panache.

Herbert is a smooth and elegant Hill who always leaves you feeling he has something in reserve—a little more gospel in that voice when he sings about “trouble, right here in River City”; a more spectacular dance move than he’s willing to show. He can take a fairly ordinary number like “Marian the Librarian,” with the help of some imaginative staging, and knock it out of the park.

Strong performances abound in this production—Gordon Doerkson’s funny, huffing, puffing, grousing mayor, Barbara Pollard as Marian’s pragmatic Irish mother, little Aidan Wessels as her lisping little brother, big-bodied Chris Adams as Hill’s friend Marcellus. Devon MacKinlay’s troublemaking Tommy has a terrific tap solo. 

But the show’s success really rests on its ensemble work: from the clever “Rock Island,” where a trainload of salesmen sing a syncopated complaint about how Hill is giving them all a bad name, to the hen-like gossip of the mayor’s wife and her ladies circle (“Pickalittle, Talk-a-little”), to the mind-boggling barbershop harmonies of the school board quartet, to the singing, dancing kids who rock the big production numbers like “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Shipoopi.”

Rodgers skillfully directs the stage traffic around Lauchlin Johnston’s clever set pieces that resemble giant piano keys and musical frets, and she throws in imaginative visual effects like a Wells Fargo wagon that comes rolling in on wheels made up of girls’ twirling parasols. Kudos to musical director Christopher King as well, who gets great sound from the 15-piece orchestra and the singers.

My only grouse is about how playwright Willson and director Rodgers resolve the romantic plot. Marian knows that Hill is a fraud but she lets him off the hook way too easily. As feisty as Samantha Currie plays Marian in Act One, she can’t do much about the way Marian simply melts in Act Two. A 21st century production should challenge, even if only playfully, this 1950s notion of the way women are supposed to behave.  

Jerry Wasserman