BWW Reviews: Theatre Memphis Toots Its Horns in THE MUSIC MAN

June 16
6:49 AM 2014
BWW Reviews:  Theatre Memphis Toots Its Horns in THE MUSIC MAN

Theatre Memphis Toots Its Horns in THE MUSIC MAN

A number of years ago, I was ordering breakfast at the Dogwood Cabin in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and before the food arrived, a barbershop quartet began to harmonize. "How delightful," I thought - and then there was another song, followed by yet another: A barbershop quartet convention was in town, and several groups were scattered throughout the restaurant and waiting for their opportunity to perform. Before my pancake syrup was even out of the bottle, I was already craving some antidotal "heavy metal." Such experiences remind me of Mark Twain's story CAPTAIN STORMFIELD'S VISIT TO HEAVEN: Upon first arriving behind the Pearly Gates, the Captain is delighted to hear the heavenly harps; but as time passes, the harmonies become stultifying. Thankfully, the barbershop quartet that strolls through Theatre Memphis' colorful new production of Meredith Willson's THE MUSIC MAN never overstays its welcome.

I shall forever acknowledge THE MUSIC MAN's original "Professor Harold Hill, Robert Preston, as the perfect template for this particular show. With his jaunty self-confidence, crowd-pleasing ability to sell a song, and charisma, he was as iconic in this role as Ethel Merman was in GYPSY or Mary Martin was in SOUND OF MUSIC (amazingly, he wasn't even Oscar-nominated for the film version -- a criminal omission, in my estimation). (MISS AMERICA's Bert Parks also tried to replicate Preston's success, but he always struck me as an oily used car salesman in the part.)

Theatre Memphis has wisely cast "go to" song-and-dance man, Robert Hanford, as con artist "Hill"; and I was anxious to see his interpretation. Hanford doesn't just have a "bag of tricks"; rather, he has a whole trunk full. When given the chance, he has the talent and energy to bounce from corner to corner of the proscenium; he reminds me of performers like Mickey Rooney and Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey, all performers with talent to spare - he has, in fact, the elasticity of the animated characters in some Warner Brothers short, bouncing all over the screen. Yet, as in the relatively restrained role of "Don Lockwood" in an earlier production of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, he can be restrained; it depends on the parameters of the role. His "Professor Hill" isn't quite as expansive as that of a Robert Preston; however, it is a charming, legitimate interpretation, and he proves very effective within his character arc. He has come to River City, Iowa, to dupe others, but he himself has been taken in; it is in his relationship with initially skeptic librarian "Marian Paroo" and with the trusting, bright-eyed youth in River City that Hanford manages to create a full-fledged character. His singing and dancing qualifications for the role, as usual, are fully on display.

As the initially rigid librarian "Marian Paroo," soprano Emily F. Chateau not only has the prettiest voice in the show, but also the prettiest songs. Her golden locks, like the silk of Iowa corn, recall original Broadway and screen appearances by, respectively, Barbara Cook and Shirley Jones; and her rendition of "Will I Ever Tell You," accompanied by that marvelous quartet (special mention to Doug Hardin, Kevin Kenny, Charles K. Hodges, and Joseph Lackie) on "Lida Rose" is my favorite number in the show (I like it as well or better than the better known, lovely "Till There Was You.")

In the scene-stealing division, popular performer Steve Swift (check out his "Sister Myotis" bits on YOU TUBE) is the perpetually thwarted "Mayor Shinn"; his pronunciations (and mispronunciations) - as well as a born comedian's expert delivery - make the frustrated "Mayor" a comic delight. There are also effective turns by James Dale Green as a legitimate, jealous fellow salesman; Martha Jones as a hilariously off-key "Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn" (she reminds me of character actress Elvia Allman, who was so memorable as the candy factory supervisor in the famous I LOVE LUCY episode); Carrie Corbett as "Mrs. Paroo"; and young Holden Clark Guibao as the lisping "Winthrop."

Director Amy Hanford once again has taken a well-known musical and made it seem as fresh and inviting as a cold glass of lemonade (which would not have been out of place at the refreshment stand). Not only does the play merrily move forward, but the colorful period costumes by Andre Bruce Ward and the marvelous set by Jack Yates are visually evocative of a small Iowa town at the turn of the century. The choreography by Christi Hall has cartwheeling youngsters, comic overtones ("Mrs. Shinn" and her Grecian Urn-ettes), and showcase turns for the stars. (Mr. Hanford suffered a broken leg prior to this show, but you couldn't prove it by me.)

With its sing-"songy" charm, gentle humor, and popular melodies, THE MUSIC MAN, with its patriotic bunting and high spirits, is the perfect pre-July 4th musical. Through June 29. Photo courtesy of Theatre Memphis.

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