Flim-flammery and River City hustle are alive and well in Long Beach where even an injured shoulder can't stop the progress of Harold Hill and his big-band dreams. Musical Theatre West's production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man has returned to The Carpenter Performing Arts Center for the fifth time in the company's 60-year history, this time with Davis Gaines and Gail Bennett leading an enormous, gung-ho cast.
Even after multiple engagements, the show's recognition factor works to its advantage. Who doesn't know Professor Harold Hill the salesman who hops among small towns conning and grifting gullible locals into shelling out for a boys band that will never materialize. "I always think there's going to be a band," Hill says, in a rare display of can-do optimism. And if he believes it, so will we.
Featuring a cast of 40 people, director Jeff Maynard's production has a lot of moving parts. While Maynard and choreographer John Todd have the high energy, everybody-in-motion numbers popping, dropped and stepped-on lines were abundant on opening night. But those moments were quickly forgotten with Gaines and Matt Walker (in full Charlie Chaplin mode as Hill's conman-in-arms Marcellus Washburn) on hand to move things along.
Although Gaines has logged much stage time as a musical antihero in the title role of The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and the regional circuit, his voice is stronger than it is nimble, and Hill is written for a singer with patter finesse rather than vocal muscle. Indeed, there are moments in the galloping "Trouble" where Gaines feels like he's racing to catch up rather than leading the charge. But by the time "Marian the Librarian" rolls around, the performer is on surer footing, and when belting out "Till There Was You" with Bennett's Marian, he is every bit in his comfort zone.
Gaines' portrayal of Hill is less frenetic than those of past actors, perhaps a by-product of a shoulder injury that has him essentially performing the role one-handed in a sling (an extra set of kudos to costume designer for finding a colorful slings that match both Hill's outfits and the production's candy-colored palette). Still, the actor has mischievous eyes, bushels of hucksterism, and some splendid push-pull chemistry both with Bennett and Kevin Ciardelli's spunky Winthrop Paroo.
Gaines is well matched by Bennett's Marian. Tall and a bit patrician with a head of red curls (the Paroos, we're reminded, are Irish), Bennett takes Marian the Librarian from steely spinster to besotted Hill defender without making the transformation seem jarring. And, to borrow a phrase from Zaneeta Shinn, Ye Gods! can Bennett sing — the sustained note at the end of "My White Knight" is a feat.
While The Music Man is largely a showpiece for the man himself, Maynard has rounded out the cast smartly. As the bickering school board members whom Hill turns into a barbershop quartet, Bryan Vickery, Michael Scott Harris, Emzy Burroughs, and Peyton Crim knock every a cappella number out of the park. Those four actors are also on hand to set the pace during the jaunty railway opening number "Rock Island." Joey D'Auria and Rebecca Spencer resist the temptation to heavily camp things up but still generate plenty of laughs as the blustery Mayor Shinn and his interpretive dance-happy wife Eulalie MacKechine Shinn.
The ensemble work is superb. Todd has young children and teens sharing the stage, and he moves them effortlessly into marches, leaps, dances and even the occasional handspring. "Shipoopi," led by Walker, is an explosion of youthful energy. Ditto the substantial ensemble contributions to "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Marian the Librarian," and "Wells Fargo Wagon."
These kids "know the territory." So does Maynard. And where The Music Man is concerned, so too does Musical Theatre West.
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