CENTERVILLE — The Music Man put West Side Story to shame in the 1958 Tony Awards. Maybe West Side was ahead of its time, and too jaded for pre-Vietnam America . But The Music Man had two things that West Side didn’t: a plot made from whole cloth, and an actor giving the performance of a lifetime. Robert Preston bagged a Tony for Best Actor, and later reprised his role in the familiar 1962 film adaptation.
Rodgers Memorial Theatre is the latest local venue to revive the classic story of smooth-talking swindler Harold Hill’s exploits in the fictional small town of River City, Iowa. The Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday cast’s performance began with an exhilarating performance of “Rock Island” (aka “the train scene”), and segued into “Iowa Stubborn,” where the townsfolk displayed impressive singing voices and individual expression.
Once in town, Harold Hill puts the moves on the local music teacher/librarian to keep her from noticing that “he don’t know one note from another.” Meanwhile, he cons the town into investing in band instruments for their children who he claims are in moral peril.
Before long, Hill has the youth dancing their little hearts out with excitement. Led by Zaneeta (Caitlin Bird) and Tommy Dijilas (Jacob Tonks), the River City teens threw down some exciting dance numbers. Choreographer Stephanie Thomas gave a fresh, energetic perspective to familiar numbers like “Ya Got Trouble” and “Seventy-Six Trombones.”
Natalie Peterson —a real-life librarian!— gave a stand-out performance as Marian. Her clear voice and rosy cheeks brought to mind a young Julie Andrews. Peterson was confident, poised, and masterfully communicated the character arc of the stuck-up turned love-struck Marian.
Jansen Davis’s Harold Hill was low-key (though not as subdued as Matthew Broderick in the 2003 TV movie). I would have liked a little more sparkle, but I don’t think it was a problem for most of the audience. He also slipped up too many lines to overlook, but generally carried the role with an air of veteran confidence.
Patti G. Williams sank her teeth into the role of Eulalie Shinn. Her intentionally horrendous performance of the patriotic hymn “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” garnished the most laughter of the show. Also milking the yuks was Todd J. Wente as Charlie Cowell, who managed to be both comical and menacing as he sought to expose Hill. (And the fact that he’s the villain while the conman is the hero shows just how strong the script is.)
The famous barber shop quartet (Steve Plowman, Jonathon D. Crittenden, Brady Cash, Jeremy Nordfelt) got off to a rocky start, but they really took off by the second act. Their Lida Rose was simply exquisite.
As for the direction (Addie Holman), there were some inventive comic touches throughout, but the dead moments in Marian the Librarian were unforgivable. The director should also work on strengthening Mrs. Paroo’s Irish dialect. Other areas for improvement: at least two dozen bumbled lines between the cast; a garish missed entrance; and several inaudible lines in Pick-a-Little due to inadequate mics.
But overall, Rodgers’s Music Man is a strong production, and I recommend it. It’s not “Broadway-style theatre” as they claim (seriously?), but it’s a timeless story conveyed by strong performances and choreography. Like Professor Hill, “I got my foot caught in the door.”