Meredith Willson wrote of his childhood in a small town in Iowa nearly one hundred year ago in a musical which is now fifty years old and featured artists, some of which are gone from the Broadway skyline for decades, but the art and the heart is still as pungent now as it ever was in The Music Man.
The Narrows Community Theatre’s production of the grand old musical was a sweet trip down theatrical memory lane.
Director J. Michaels paints for us a Norman Rockwell style picture complete with angel faced bad boys chasing precocious ribbon wearing girls while round faced townsfolk look on in bewilderment. Just like a good Rockwell, he added deep-in-the-heart subplots and his own healthy dash of slapstick physical humor. He does this all with a cast of over 40 people … and does this beautifully.
The play opens with a countrified Greek chorus of traveling salesmen who in a dizzying patter piece done acapella tell not only the story that is about to unfold but also how the world is now changing in this new (20th) century. The irony is if you listen closely, and change Biscuits to TV and Ford Model Ts to ipod and iphones, the parable might evoke what we are feeling now in this new (21st) century. The curtains swing open fiercely to reveal a singing dancing town of stubborn Iowans who are about to have their world turned upside down by the presence of a two-bit symbol salesman who plans on selling them music they don’t need. The titular role of Professor Harold Hill – the “music man” – was played to perfection by John Stillwaggon. Breaking the mode of the dark-haired stranger and replacing it with a sharpie with movie star countenance, Stillwaggon presents a very real Harold Hill whose mercenary demeanor is covered by an irresistible well-planned charm. The second act’s change in character for Hill is a subtle transformation that is totally believable. His love-interest is Marion the Librarian played by the operatic voiced Megan Taylor. She proves a perfect foil to the greedy train traveller as Taylor presents a sadder wiser Marion in public but whose attempt at holding on to her dreams is at times heartwarming and heartbreaking. Michael Ruocco as Hill’s on-again off-again accomplice in crime, Marcellus, is pure comic joy. All arms and legs, Ruocco evokes the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz – delightfully dimwitted while worldly-wise all along.
Hill’s targets are all terrific rural style characters: Denise Higgins-Regan hands us a clever Mrs. Paroo filled with Ethel Merman vigor and Mary Martin charm; Cliff Hesse’s Mayor Shinn looked and sounded like the best of Gilbert and Sullivan, hoisting malapropos and turning red thereafter; Claudia Gilchrist’s Mrs. Shinn was far more ladylike thus her transition at the end that much more exciting and Mike Raymond and Michelle Rabbani glide across the stage as an enjoyable MGM musical couple as Tommy and Zaneeta. Mike Whalen, Dustin Cross, Chris Robin, and Eric Pratt are truly hilarious as the singing school board. Whalen as the over the top high tenor was wildly funny while the silliness of Cross and Pratt was cued up by Robin’s befuddled round face. And out of the mouths of babies often come gems with exuberant Timothy Sundholm’s Winthrop stealing many a scene from all except Allison-Frances Johnson as Amaryllis whose flare for comedy was evident. (The second weekend brought Griffin Brackley to the stage as Winthrop. Brackley gave us depth and charm and talent far beyond his years).
The Pick-A-Little Ladies lead by Ann Gubbiotti and the agile Bieje Chapman were a perfect comedic bird complete with Chareen Meeks fanning tail; and Bryan Sotomayor as Charlie Cowell reminded us of every villain from every Charlie Chaplin movie complete with thick beard make-up and bowler hat.
The massive ensemble seemed to be having great fun running and double-taking through some of musical theatre’s most beloved tunes including a show-stopping “Trouble in River City” which – sincerely – is the best I have seen of this number; and the parade of children dancing in unison is a great tribute to choreographer Michael Fascianella, who supplied some truly joyous moves. Musical directors Kristen Rosenfeld and Chris Kong (who played and conducted the show) brought out the best in this huge complement of people. Assistant directors Eric Fitzgerald (who designed, built, and even executed the Saturday Evening Post cover set and scene changes) and Sarah “Sam” Pincus (omnipresent in the dance numbers, undoubtedly as an unofficial dance captain) are to be congratulated for being an integral part and not just unknown back-up. The stage was awash in hats and feathers and bows, collars and watches and vests, all thanks to some truly amazing work by Marialana Ardolino, Kathryn Stein, and Sona Sood, and Denise Higgins-Regan. Adding to this were actual trombones through a fine ensemble of musicians (including Jeff Arzberger, Walter Birkhold, Ryan King, and Min Ho Shin).
At the final scene (don’t read this if you don’t know the ending by now) as the River City parents were poised to congratulate and photograph their children’s attempt at music, the townsfolk of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, each raised their cameras to snap a moment of their own kids, friends, and family. And with that, the message of the play was clear: happiness has its own tune that so few can truly hear … unless they listen with an open heart. River City heard it. Bay Ridge apparently did too.
Narrows Community Theatre presents a full season of productions at the lovely Theatre at St. Patrick’s. Bay Ridge is a bit of a schlep but with ticket prices criminally cheap and free parking, it’s worth the Belt Parkway or a ride on the R, which, like the number 8 at River City junction was late again… or was it early.