Director-choreographer Valerie Rachelle and a couldn’t-be-better cast get everything right in Glendale Centre Theatre’s crowd-delighting revival of Meredith Willson’s 1957 classic The Music Man, an in-the-round production well worth a 76-trombone salute.
Refreshingly sophisticated, surprisingly deep, and more than a tad acidic at times, Meredith Willson’s self-described “valentine” to his home state of Iowa (book co-written with Franklin Lacey) turns out to be far from the saccharine musical some have accused it of being, its innovative brilliance beginning with its very first musical number.
“Rock Island” may well be the first rap song ever heard on Broadway, entirely spoken to the rhythm of a train, starting out its journey, then speeding up and choo-chooing along at a brisk pace until it comes to a halt at the River City train station—without a single note from a musical instrument until the last salesman has spoken.
Even today, nearly six decades after The Music Man’s Broadway debut, this opening number packs as hilarious and original a punch as ever, and it’s a particular treat seeing it and The Music Man’s many other iconic song-and-dance sequences staged “arena style” at GCT.
The “train rap” is immediately followed by “Iowa Stubborn,” and if you don’t pay attention to Willson’s lyrics, you might be fooled into thinking that these are a bunch of small town yokels not deserving of a listening by big city folks like us. But open your ears and you’ll hear lines like “Join us at the picnic. You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself.” These are people whose words pack considerable bite, and who are well worth getting to know.
Traveling salesman/con artist extraordinaire “Professor” Harold Hill (a dazzling Brent Schindele) makes the mistake of underestimating River Citizens when he decides to bilk them of their savings by persuading them to spend their hard-earned cash on musical instruments and uniforms for an as yet non-existent boys’ band, promising to teach the band members to play using the “Think System.” (If you can whistle a tune just by thinking it, then surely you can play it without practicing.)
First, however, he must convince the townspeople that they’ve got trouble in River City, and news of the town billiard parlor’s first pool table (gasp!) is enough to get Harold rapping that “Ya Got Trouble,” a song unlike any a Broadway audience had ever heard in 1957, and one so unique that Willson, try as he might, could never again equal it.
If Harold Hill is to succeed, he must also find a way to neutralize the enemy in the person of Marian Paroo (a glorious Heather Lundstedt), the town’s beautiful but outwardly prim-and-prudish librarian. Don’t take Marian too lightly, though. Like Oklahoma!’s Laurey Williams, another misunderstood musical theater girl-next-door (and a role Lundstedt played luminously at GCT a few years back), still waters run deep indeed in Marian. Not only is she an “old maid” at twenty-six, Marian also has quite a “reputation” around town.
You see, “Madam Librarian” not only reads precisely the kind of dirty books that book-banners want to see burned (Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac!) she also “made brazen overtures with a gilt-edged guarantee” to town miser Madison, who “left River City the library building but he left all the books to her.”
Get to know Marian a bit better, however, and you’ll discover a woman who is smart and not at all superficial, even if she does have all the town biddies gossiping about her in “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” (“cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more”). No, siree, this is a woman worth knowing—as our con-man hero will soon discover.
Making a complete list of favorite Music Man moments is nigh-on-impossible, but here are a few:
•Harold Hill turning ever-bickering school board members Oliver Hix, Olin Britt, Ewart Dunlop, and Jacey Squires (Alex Camp, Hisato Maruyama, Rob Schaumann, and John David Wallace) into inseparable chums simply by showing them how to blend their voices in barbershop harmony in “Ice Cream/Sincere,” “Goodnight, Ladies,” and “Lida Rose”;
•Marian’s music student Amaryllis (Alexis Ballard) playing her “cross-hand piece” at the piano, Amaryllis’s left hand going sky-high before descending on the composition’s ever-so treble final note;
•The attempts made by Marian’s 10-year-old brother Winthrop (Nate Schinnerer) to hide his pesky lisp, until the arrival of his much dreamed about cornet provokes an excited “Thithter! Thithter! I never thought I’d ever thee anything tho thcrumpthyuth ath thith thcrumpthyuth tholid gold thing! O thithter!”
•The advice given to Marian in “Piano Lesson” by her Irish mother Mrs. Paroo (Judi Domroy): “When a woman has a husband and you’ve got none, why should she take advice from you? Even if you can quote Balzac and Shakespeare and all them other highfalutin’ Greeks.”
•Teenage Zaneeta’s (Emily Fisher) excited exclamations of “Ye Gads!” to the dismay of her father, stuffy River City Mayor Shinn (Richard Van Slyke) and the delight of sexy town bad boy Tommy Djilas (Andrew Allen).
•Mayor Shin’s wife, the thrice-named Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Ariella Fiore), leading her Ladies’ Dance Committee in some outrageously funny “historical” tableaux or delivering of one of the show’s most quotable lines (“Balzac!”) in utter disgust.
•Avenging anvil salesman Charlie Cowell’s ineffectual attempts to win “Girlie Girl” Marian’s confidence only to find he may just have met his match.
Then there are the show’s dance numbers, created on Broadway by the legendary Onna White and brought to vividly original, in-the-round life by the oh-so talented Rachelle, excitingly energetic song-and dance sequences like the teens-gone-wild “Marian The Librarian,” “Shipoopi,” led by Harold Hill’s local accomplice in crime Marcellus (James Paul Xavier), and the entire cast’s marching kicks in “Seventy Six Trombones,” all of which make The Music Man one of the danciest shows in town this or any year.
It’s also one of Glendale Centre Theatre’s best, and that is saying something indeed when you consider a track record that has included pitch-perfect revivals of Crazy For You, Little Shop Of Horrors, and last year’s GCT-Rachelle collaboration, South Pacific, to name just three.
To begin with, this is the first of the four Music Mans (Music Men?) I’ve seen over the past five years with flaw-free casting of the show’s iconic pair of leads. Neither Schindele nor Lundstedt is too old or young to play Harold and Marian, both can act as awesomely as they can sing, and Schindele can rap on-the-beat with the best of them.
Could there be a handsomer or more charming Harold than GCT favorite Schindele, or one who makes us better understand why a woman as smart as Marian would fall for him knowing full well his flaws, or a Harold whose ultimate conversion makes more perfect sense? I think not, nor could any Marian be more convincing than Lundstedt at showing us that still waters do indeed run deep in the starchy “Madam Librarian” or at singing Willson classics like “Goodnight My Someone,” “My White Knight,” and “Till There Was You” in as gorgeous a soprano as you’ll hear any day soon. Schindele and Lundstedt (reteamed from GCT’s The Scarlet Pimpernel) make you believe you’re seeing and hearing Harold and Marian for the first time, and considering their predecessors in the roles, that is saying something indeed.
Van Slyke and Fiore reinvent Mayor and Mrs. Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn to hilarious perfection as well, with Xavier’s zesty Marcellus, Domroy’s feisty Mrs. Paroo, and Schinnerer’s spunky Winthrop each a gem of a performance. Camp, Maruyama, Schaumann, and Wallace’ Barbershop Quartet are as funny as they are four-part harmonious and matched by Pickalittle Ladies Denise Bradley, Lindsay Day, Kelly King, and Lacy Prince, each a gossipy delight.
Allen’s Tommy and Fisher’s Zaneeta couldn’t be make for more adorable young sweethearts and deserve bows separate from the ensemble starting right now. Tiptop cameos are delivered by Blackley as Charlie Cowell and Ballard as Amaryllis.
And then there are the dancers, a sensationally talented bunch indeed. Alex Allen, Suzanne Badawi, Donna Ibale, Jacob Krech, Ally Mulholland, Kyle Shepard, and Rebecca Thomas (along with the aforementioned Allen and Fisher) rise to every Rachelle challenge with vim, vigor, verve, and razor-sharp precision, making this Music Man one of the best choreographed and danced GCT shows ever.
Add to all of the above child performers Bradley Bundlie, Elyse Cain, Carmina Garay, Ella Robinson, Lucas Schinnerer, Danny Schwadron, and Carter Thomas and you’ve got a town full of Iowans you are glad to spend two and a half hours with.
As he has time and time again, musical director Steven Applegate works his magic with a vocally gifted cast. (In fact, all that’s missing is a live orchestra—and The Music Man’s classic 1905s “Overture.”)
Scenic designer Tim Dietlein once again demonstrates his mastery of creating ever-morphing musical theater sets for GCT. The production’s uncredited lighting and sound design are first-rate as well, and as for Angela Wood’s costumes, does anyone do more gorgeous period wear than Glendale Costumes? (No.)
Marisa Martinez is assistant choreographer. Paul Reid is stage manager.
There’s a reason why The Music Man (like fellow 1950s Best Musical Tony winners South Pacific, Guys And Dolls, The King And I, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and My Fair Lady) keeps getting revived again and again. Quite simply, Meredith Willson’s Greatest Hit does everything right, and with Valerie Rachelle directing and choreographing the parade, Glendale Centre Theatre’s splendid revival does everything right as well.
Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.
May 22, 2014