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.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.

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