BWW Reviews: MTW Brings Cuteness Overload to THE MUSIC MAN, Ends 3/2
At the opening night performance of Musical Theatre West's charming new production of Meredith Willson's ever-enduring Tony Award-winning musical THE MUSIC MAN, affable executive director Paul Garman drops an alarming bombshell at the tail end of his introductory speech-and-spiel: that their show's star Davis Gaines---who plays the title role---has, unfortunately, suffered an injury from an accident just prior to final rehearsals for the show. The audience, understandably, gasps in collective shock.
But, of course, in the grand tradition of live theater, Garman continues, "the show must go on." In this case, it meant that Gaines---a terrific sport---will go on as advertised, but with his still-healing arm cradled in a sling. No understudies necessary here, thank you very much.
The very fact that MTW's latest grand production---which continues its final set of performances at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach through Sunday, March 2---is plowing through with a visibly-injured lead actor certainly adds a new layer of heightened excitement to what is essentially a nearly 60-year-old theater staple many of us, frankly, have seen a gazillion times.
Thankfully, both the man---and THE MUSIC MAN---did not disappoint.
Throughout the show, there was no hiding Gaines' injury (but I really appreciated how the show's costumers tried to color-coordinate his sling with the character's many outfits). So, in a clever move, an amusing line is added early on in the dialogue to address why Gaines' character, the infamous con-man huckster "Professor" Harold Hill, has his arm in a sling (which I won't spoil here, but it was a cute addition). After that little tidbit of exposition, it's (show) business as usual---with the very animated Gaines easily charming his way through this still delightful, family-friendly show surrounded by a huge ensemble cast all beaming with infectious joy.
THE MUSIC MAN, for those needing a quick refresher, tells the story of the notorious Harold Hill (Gaines) who hops from small town to small town swindling unsuspecting locals to fork over money for one of his many scams. His latest prospect brings him to River City, Iowa, which, it turns out, has yet to hear about his exploits. Almost immediately, he effortlessly cons the town's oh-so-gullible denizens by manufacturing an irrational fear out of thin air (wow, why does that remind me of how a certain faux news network operates---oops, sorry, getting off soapbox).
Hill has everyone buying into the idea of saving their town's kids from the evils of "sin and corruption" (symbolized by the impending arrival of a parlor hall pool table) by investing their time---and, of course, their money---in a squeaky-clean, wholesome "boys' band" that Hill himself will organize.
What they all don't know, though, is that Hill is neither a trained musician nor does he have any plans to actually teach the kids music at all (in the interim, he devises a "think" system which has the kids "thinking" Beethoven's "Minuet in G").
He confides his scheme to take the money and run with his "reformed" grifter buddy Marcellus (Matt Walker), who Harold is surprised to see now ensconced in the sleepy life of a River City resident. But, still, the townsfolk---seduced by the promise of shiny new instruments and colorful new uniforms---fall for Hill's constant fibs and elaborate hyperboles. Sure, doubts of his legitimacy do creep in, prompting the gruff town mayor (Joey D'Auria) to recruit a four-part-harmony foursome from the school board (Emzy Burroughs, Peyton Crim, Michael Scott Harris, Bryan Vickery) to investigate his credentials.
However, one person---shy town librarian Marian Paroo (the lovely-voiced Gail Bennet)---sees right through Hill's baloney from day one. Therein lies her dilemma: does she dare expose the supposed professor's misrepresentations or does she keep quiet, since the con man---handsome and naughty as he is---has been the only person able to break through to her awkward lisping little brother Winthrop (the darling Kevin Ciardelli) and made him feel happy and joyful again?
Oh, yeah, and she totally, like, falls in love with the guy, too.
Featuring eye-popping sets and rainbow-bright costumes, plus dynamic, high-energy choreography from John Todd, MTW's latest spirited show is such a hoot, filled with lots of upbeat music and funny exchanges. While not particularly groundbreaking, THE MUSIC MAN, for all intents and purposes, is foremost a peppy piece of entertainment, especially when it's showcased well and is performed by an appealing, enthusiastic cast.
Though Gaines has earned stage notoriety for playing the ultra-serious title role in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA over 2,000 times on Broadway and beyond, the ham-tastic actor lately seems to have found a nice, amiable niche in Southern California stages playing more light-hearted characters. MTW itself, in particular, has plucked him for memorable roles in 1776, MAN OF LA MANCHA, and SPAMALOT. And now with THE MUSIC MAN---still buoyant despite perhaps being cautious not to aggravate his injury---Gaines once again proves his prowess for comedy (but, man, I was so nervous for him every time his character claps in excitement...hope that didn't hurt the arm each time).
And besides outstanding performances from Gaines and co-stars Bennett, Walker, Ciardelli, and D'Auria, other standouts in the massive ensemble include Cathy Newman who plays Marian's mother, and the hilarious Rebecca Spencer who easily steals the show as the mayor's "artsy" wife Eulalie Mackecknie-Shinn (every time she came onstage to add some deliciousness to the scene and then leaves, I found myself turning several times to my friend to whisper... "ohmigod, I loooove her.") It is, hands down, the most side-splitting, funniest individual performance of the year for me thus far.
But as amazing as these adult actors are, the young ones in the cast definitely held their own, and sometimes took well-deserved focus away from the grown-ups. From cute little Winthrop (Ciardelli) and his gal-stalker Amaryllis (Maggie Balleweg) to the tiny young girl who tumbled across the stage and right into our collective hearts, the kids in this production are absolutely adorable... in a show that utilizes (and brings out the best) in budding kid actors with burgeoning stage dreams.
The only mentionable hiccup in THE MUSIC MAN for me is a fixable technical issue: several times throughout the show, particularly in the faster numbers, it seems the enormous cast and the lively, hardworking band are on different musical rhythms/timing and don't quite sync up. Fortunately, a few individual cast members (sometimes Gaines himself) try their best to alleviate the timing issues on the fly by singing in the correct rhythm as what's coming up from the pit, helping to sync everybody onstage. Professionalism at work, y'all!
Probably more than any production I have seen of this particular musical, MTW's winsome regional revival---under the direction of Jeff Maynard---seems to have totally amped up the cuteness overload, and, boy, is it ever hard to resist. Free of irony and snark (ah, remember those good ol' days, Grandpa?) yet certainly chock-full of aww-shucks comedy, adorkable moments, and plenty of rousing showtune staples you can't get out of your head, THE MUSIC MAN's old-fashioned-ness is its ultimate asset... and, honestly, I totally adored it. The whole thing is so unabashedly wholesome and corny, it's actually pretty beguiling all over again.
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Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West. Previous page: Professor Harold Hill (Davis Gaines) reveals his identity. This page, from top: Mrs. Shinn (Rebecca Spencer) entertains with a drum circle; Hill is in love with town librarian Marian (Gail Bennett); Winthrop (Kevin Ciardelli) gets a kiss.
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's THE MUSIC MAN continue through Sunday, March 2 and are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., and Sunday evening at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $20. There is a $3 service charge per ticket. Prices are subject to change without notice. Group rates are available for 12 or more.
Musical Theatre West performs at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA.
For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.