BWW Reviews: Rousing 76 Trombones Parade Through MTW
What do the 1950s have in common with 1912? Ages of innocence, both. When Meredith Willson wrote his story with Franklin Lacey about a con artist bamboozling an Iowa town in 1912, which formed the substance of his musical The Music Man (1957), the effect became like that of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker. People were jubilant, ecstatic and welcomed Professor Harold Hill, as they craved a good old-fashioned love story coated with ironic excitement. He was a charmer, and they saw way past his bad side. Now in a colorful new production at Musical Theatre West (MTW) in Long Beach, this company pulls out all the stops and presents a delightfully bigger-than-life show that would do Willson proud. With super direction from Jeff Maynard and a divine cast led by Davis Gaines, The Music Man offers a refreshing take on the way life should be, whether 1912, 1955 or 2014.
We're aware of Hill's (Gaines) fraudulent ways at the very top on a train to River City. He sits quietly behind a newspaper, face not seen, as traveling salesmen, including Charlie Cowell (Christopher Utley), decry his con throughout the territory and threaten to hunt him down and turn him into the feds, "Rock Island". But, Hill eludes them. His manner is so overly friendly and assuring that even the townspeople of River City gradually buy into the scam and put up hard earned money to purchase band uniforms and instruments for their children. The hope is that Hill will teach them how to play. Librarian and music teacher Marian Paroo (Gail Bennett) is the most difficult for Hill to convince, but when she sees how her little brother Winthrop (Kevin Ciardelli) becomes excited by the prospect of playing in the band, she gives in, even though she has researched Hill's claim to a musical background and knows it's a lie. You see, Marian may be a stubborn catch for Hill, but when she falls, she falls hard... in love, that is. When the instruments arrive by coach, she's hooked. Hill has one friend in town, Marcellus Washburn, a reformed con (Matt Walker), who is his constant ally.
Hill's method of instruction is "the think system", another meaningless fraud. Or is it? It's sure doing something to perk up the lives of the townsfolk! Of course, salesman Charlie Cowell's pursuit of Hill does not cease. He even tries to charm Marian to get her to tell him where Hill is. If you know the story or have seen the 1962 film with Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, there's nothing to worry about as a happy ending is on the horizon. This is the early 20th century after all, and even con men can turn their lives around and settle down. Look at Marcellus! And...this is a love story. ("Till There Was You")
Gaines, trouper that he is, went onstage opening night with a broken shoulder, his arm in a sling and gave a lollapalooza of a performance, singing, dancing and charmingly conning up a storm. Bennett is nothing short of a marvel as Marian. With a gorgeous classically-trained soprano, she stands her ground and wins our hearts. Walker makes a bright and deliciously beaming Marcellus and Utley is dynamite in his scenes as Cowell. Joey D' Auria is approriately grumpy as Mayor Shinn and Rebecca Spencer as his wife Eulalie slays, she is such a hoot in her 'dancing' scenes. ("Pickalittle") Cathy Newman makes a sturdy Mrs. Paroo and Ciardelli hits the mark as the lisping Winthrop. Great praise to the entire ensemble. Under John Todd's slick choreographic hand, everyone does terrific work, seen especially in the "Marian the Librarian" number as well as "Shipoopi", "Trouble" and of course, "Seventy-Six Trombones". Peyton Crim, Emzy Burroughs Michael Scott Harris and Bryan Vickery are definite standouts with their fine harmonizing in "Lida Rose".