BWW Reviews: Nelson Delivers a Knock-out THE MUSIC MAN Led By Hancock and Pendzick
If confession is good for the soul, then you're all going to laugh uproariously at me after this and, no doubt, point derisively at me. But I will refuse to hang my head in shame.
Let me explain: During a scene early in Act One of The Music Man at Cumberland County Playhouse-when the spellbinding Professor Harold Hill lulls the citizens of River City, Iowa, into believing he will transform the town and its children into a piccolo-playing, cymbal-crashing, marching band, which culminates in the performance of "76 Trombones"-my eyes filled with tears (heck, even thinking about it very nearly turns on the waterworks here) so inspiring and so positively, absolutely wonderful was that particular moment, featuring all 372 members of the cast.
It's something that good musical theater does to me like no other art form (save for a Hallmark commercial at Christmastime) can: It transports me to another world, it causes my spirits to soar and it makes me so deliriously happy that I get to experience that feeling as part of the day-to-day drudgery of my life. Musical theater speaks directly to my heart and I am proud to say so.
But The Music Man? Come on, the classic Meredith Willson musical chestnut is as corny and all-American as you can possibly get (let's face it, Willson is the master of that particular genre of musical theater occupied by The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown-plus he wrote the Oscar-nominated score for William Wyler's The Little Foxes, which is one of my all-time favorite movies: "The grits didn't hold they heat"), it's pure hokum and there is absolutely nothing at all cynical about it. So why the heck does it make me respond with such emotional fervor?
Well, I'm going to tell you why: It does everything I want-in fact, everything I need-musical theater to do, which isn't redolent with cynicism or the lack of theatrical pretense. Indeed, it's quite the opposite. It's a picture postcard world filled with memorable songs and lovable characters (yes, even the stereotypical ones) and it gives theater artists the opportunity to apply what they know, frankly what makes them long to be onstage, in order to bring this fanciful world to life within the confines of a towering proscenium and a fictional and bucolic American town painted on aging canvas.
And when you see a cast-as you do in director/choreographer Leila Nelson's ensemble-perform with such focus and such awesome commitment (all 268 of 'em) that they elevate a timeless classic to something more than even you could expect…well, it's an emotional experience that anyone should be proud to acknowledge.
After twenty-some years of reviewing shows at Cumberland County Playhouse, I always anticipate finding my expectations exceeded by what I am presented with on that stage, but never did I anticipate my reaction to Nelson's glowingly gorgeous and wonderfully evocative staging of The Music Man. For one thing, she's too young and I don't care how many shows she's done, she's too inexperienced-or at least, that's what I thought before.
Before I watched her superb production of The Music Man.
Before I fell in love-again!-with every single actor on that stage.
And before I watched dumbstruck her compelling staging and artful choreography for Meredith Willson's hit from Broadway's 1957 season (perhaps that explains my emotional connection to the show: we were born in the same year) that won the Tony Award (and its original cast album won the first Grammy Award for that particular recording category). As impressed as I was with this sparkling revival of a musical theater warhorse, I am equally awestruck by the efforts of Leila Nelson.
To her credit, she has an exceptional ensemble of performers at her behest and two of them-the astonishing Britt Hancock and the astounding Weslie Webster-were giving her support as her assistant directors. With The Playhouse's in-house team providing the necessary technical and creative assistance that ensures a good show, Nelson couldn't have found a better vehicle for her coming out party.
Willson's timeless story remains unchanged, but this particular Playhouse revival isn't slavish in its adherence to the expected. Instead, Nelson and company somehow manage to create a new and vibrant Music Man even while hauling Leonard Harmon's classic set designs out of storage and employing Willson's classic score. There's not a lot you can do to change it without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but if you can enliven the show with smart, yet very simple, adjustments, you can effectively create something new and exciting for audiences, even while serving up for them a true and refined classic.
It helps, of course, that Hancock plays Professor Harold Hill; he is a brilliant actor, so talented and versatile that I would sell my soul for even a smidgen of his skills. Seriously. Britt Hancock is an extraordinary talent and I sometimes wonder if Playhouse audiences really understand how lucky they are that year-after-year he returns to entertain them. Certainly, his Harold Hill is smarmy, snarky and dastardly, but he never once slips into an impersonation of Robert Preston (let's face it, for most of us he is Harold Hill) and his interpretation seems somehow filled with grace and enough charm to fill up Neyland Stadium.
It's that sense of self-effacing charm that makes Hancock the perfect match for Lindy Pendzick, who plays Marian Paroo with a selfless sense of propriety that radiates her inner strength and enduring goodness throughout the somewhat convoluted plot that unfolds before you. I first saw Pendzick two seasons ago, playing Fiona to Hancock's Tommy Albright in Brigadoon, and was instantly taken with her. Together, the two are winningly paired, infusing their characters with warmth and a very genuine sense of spirit that never flags.
As wonderful as their "Almost Like Being in Love" was in Brigadoon, however, I think their "Til There Was You" in The Music Man may be even more dreamily romantic. (More evidence to convict me of being a big old sentimental fool: How darling were all the older couples around me when they heard the first notes of "Til There Was You"? The woman seated directly in front of me leaned into her husband and he took her hand and, well, it was very sweet-take my word for it.)
Hancock and Pendzick are given strong support by the other members of the cast, particularly the four men who comprise "the quartet" and The River City School Board. Quinn Cason, Austin Price, Greg Pendzick and John Dobbratz sing with such authority and exquisite harmonies that, quite frankly, it's hard to fathom that any other group of four could possibly sound better. Cason, Price and Pendzick (yep, he's the lucky man who Lindy sings to regularly-and who stars with her in The Playhouse's production of See Rock City) are veterans of the CCP stage and Dobbratz is a newcomer and somehow music director Ron Murphy helps them to blend their voices to achieve nothing short of perfection. Their "duet" with Marian on "Lida Rose" and "Will I Ever Tell You" is a musical highlight, perhaps the finest musical moment of the entire production.
Lauren Marshall Murphy is ideally cast as Marian's sweetly scheming Irish mother, although her role fails to treat audiences to the sound of her glorious voice. Playhouse favorites (the two people whose faces always come to mind when I think of CCP) Carol Irvin and Jason Ross are wonderful together as Eulalie McKechnie Shinn and her husband, the Mayor. Irvin is drolly amusing in her over-the-top rendering of the town's first lady, while Ross delivers the mayor's malapropisms with unerring skill and jaw-dropping timing.
Porter Anderson is particularly delightful as Marcellus Washburn (Professor Hill's sometime partner-in-crime), showing off his musical comedy skills with ease, while Michael Ruff is all blustery buffoonery as the professor's arch nemesis Charlie Cowell. Weslie Webster, who could stand and read the telephone book and I would shout one "brava!" after another, makes the most of her tiny role (she's local matron Alma Hix, the mother of two of the cutest little boys you've ever seen).
The remainder of the ensemble-which numbers somewhere in the eighties if my arithmetic is correct-fill the stage with freewheeling good spirits and just the right sense of abandon, yet Nelson manages to maintain control of her charges to ensure a production that is entertaining and, frankly, inspiring. As a result, "Iowa Stubborn," "Ya Got Trouble" and "Shipoopi" have never sounded better (Peter Griffin notwithstanding).
And as impressive as what you see onstage is (credit for costumes goes to Renee Luttrell and Rebel Mickelson; David Brandon designs the evocative lighting; and Ryan Haderlie handles the sound design with deft skill), you will be even more blown away by the performance of Murphy's nine-piece orchestra (in addition to the conductor, their number includes Joe Brindisi, Wayne Robbins, Robert Thatch, Chet Hayes, Chris Rayis, Kathy Bowers, Greg Danner and Tony Greco) who play Willson's memorable score with admirable confidence and amazing musicianship and talent.
- The Music Man. Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey. Directed and choreographed by Leila Nelson. Music direction by Ron Murphy. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville. Through September 1. For details, go to www.ccplayhouse.com or call the box office at (931) 484-5000.