Palos Verdes Performing Arts scores a musical comedy bulls-eye with their big-stage, up-close-and-personal revival of Meredith Willson’s 1957 classic The Music Man, the all-around best of the half-dozen Music Men I’ve seen so far.

Refreshingly sophisticated, surprisingly deep, and at times more than a tad acidic, Meredith Willson’s self-described “valentine” to his home state of Iowa (story by Willson and 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 have made history as the first rap song ever heard on Broadway, entirely spoken to the rhythm of a train, after which “Iowa Stubborn” introduces us to the folks who call River City, Iowa home and to Willson’s mastery of the sweetly-barbed lyric. (“Join us at the picnic. You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself.”)

The arrival of traveling salesman/con artist extraordinaire “Professor” Harold Hill (Brent Schindele) seems likely to spell trouble for these friendly/inhospitable folks given his plan to sell them pricey musical instruments and uniforms for an a non-existent-and-never-will-be boys’ band.

To do so, however, he must first convince the townspeople that River City’s first pool table ever means “Ya Got Trouble,” after which he must find a way to neutralize the enemy, aka librarian Marian Paroo (Katharine McDonough), an “old maid” at twenty-six with a “reputation” for having “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,” and then turn a quartet of bickering school board members (and potential alarm-sounders) into inseparable chums simply by showing them how to blend their voices in barbershop harmony.

Along the way we also meet Marian’s acerbic Irish mother Mrs. Paroo (Cathy Newman) and the librarian’s 10-year-old brother Winthrop (Travis Burnett-Doering), rendered virtually mute since his father’s death, a pesky lisp not helping in that regard; bombastic River City Mayor Shinn (Greg Nicholas), his thrice-named wife Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Mary Murphy-Nelson), and their teenage daughter Zaneeta “Ye Gads!” Shin (Missy Marion), smitten with town bad boy Tommy Djilas (Adam Trent); and Harold’s local accomplice in crime, his old buddy Marcellus (Austin Rea).

Will “Professor” Hill once again succeed in bilking an All-American small town of its hard-earned cash? Will he once again seduce the prettiest local lass and leave her behind? Or will things be different this time round?

These questions and more, much more, have kept The Music Man a guaranteed theater-filler for the past sixty years and a showcase for Meredith Willson’s triple-threat gifts as book writer (what rich characters he drew!), lyricist (what clever, funny, unexpected words he wrote!), and music (what irresistibly catchy tunes he created!).

Choreographer Daniel Smith follows his Carousel at Musical Theatre West with another bunch of dazzling (and this time delightfully whimsical) original dance moves, a series of exciting, energetic, ever-morphing production numbers like the teens-gone-wild “Marian The Librarian,” the bouncy party anthem “Shipoopi,” and the full-cast marching kicks of “Seventy Six Trombones.”

Under Todd Nielsen’s inspired direction, performances sparkle brightly indeed, beginning with the radiantly charismatic Schindele, acing each and every one of Harold Hill’s multiple challenges, and McDonough’s equally luminous Marian, whose prim exterior hides fires within, and who sings in the most glorious of sopranos.

Nicholas’s hot-air-filled Mayor Shin and Murphy-Nelson’s just-swallowed-a-lemon Mrs. Shin accomplish the nearly impossible by making us forget the movie adaptation’s Paul Ford and Hermione Gingold, and Rea too makes the ebullient Marcellus all his own.

Newman’s salty Mrs. Paroo and Burnett-Doering’s thpunky Winthrop make for a pair of mother-son charmers and Trent’s spunky Tommy and Marion’s vivacious Zaneeta couldn’t be more puppy-lovely.

Brian Middleton’s cameo as salesman-on-a-mission Charlie Cowell is another winner, as are squabbling harmonizers Patrick Cheek (Oliver Hix), Cole Cuomo (Olin Britt), Joey Langford (Jacey Squires), and Mitchell Turner (Ewart Dunlop).

Add to the above Monica Allan (Ethel Toffelmier), Sarah Marie (Alma Hix), Allison McGuire (Maud Dunlap), Sierra Palese (Gracie Shin), Olivia Park (Amaryllis), Maggie Randolph (Mrs. Squires), and Zachary Salas (Conductor/Constable); River City Townspeople Tara Burnett-Doering, Middleton, and KJ Rasheed; River City Children Ryan Brooks, Gavin Clark, Ryan Daley, and Davryn McDuffie, and above all delightful, dynamic dance stars Edgar Cardoso, Lori Coulis, Judy Fernandez, Marion, Isabella Olivas, Natalie Roberts, Kanami Rose, Paul Stine, and Trent—and you’ve got a cast to rival the Southland’s best.

You’ve also got as splendid-looking a Music Man as anyone could hope for thanks to The Music And Theatre Company spiffy sets, dozens and dozens of gorgeous period costumes (provided by The Theatre Company and coordinated by Diana Mann), and lighting designer Jean-Yves Tessier making all this look even more gorgeous. Kudos too to prop master Jessica “Wyndi” Mills and wig designer Anthony Gagliardi.

Last but far from least, there wouldn’t be a Music Man as splendid-sounding as this without musical director Sean Alexander Bart, his live thirteen-piece orchestra, and sound designer Brian Hsieh tying voices and instruments together to perfection.

Chris Warren Murry is stage manager. Chris Gilbert is production manager and Stacy Hennon Stone is technical director.

In a decade that also gave American musical theater perennial favorites like Guys And Dolls, Damn Yankees, and the queen of them all My Fair Lady, The Music Man more than stands up to these greats. Check it out down Palos Verdes way and you’ll see why.

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Norris Theatre, 27570 Crossfield Drive, Rolling Hills Estates.

–Steven Stanley
April 28, 2017
Photos: Ed Krieger

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