On Dec. 19,1957, Prof. Harold Hill stepped off the train in River City, Iowa, onto the stage of Broadway’s Majestic Theater and into musical theater history.
In the nearly six decades since then, Meredith Willson’s homespun salute to middle America and the importance of a band has become, along with the Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Top Five, one of the most-produced musicals in the history of the genre.
The latest locally is on stage in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Auditorium through Feb. 21.
With a cast of 34 under the direction of David Case, it delivered all the familiar melodies but, unfortunately, fell into the trap of seeming easier to produce that it actually is.
Having seen the original Broadway production with THE music man Robert Preston and Barbara Cook, (yes, I am THAT old!) I have long ceased to expect a reproduction to deliver anything close to the originals. Individual interpretations frequently work (saw a Harold Hill whose forte was tapping turn “Marian The Librarian” into an extended tap routine and it was excellent), but most amateurs go for the obvious. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
The South Bend offering is a bit more of the latter.
The “doesn’t” begins with the first blatting notes of the “band,” set in an immovable gazebo upstage right. Under the direction of Conner Stigner, the small ensemble (not listed in the program) plowed through the familiar score, frequently without regard for consistentcy in tempo or key, often making it difficult to see how vocalists and dancers could keep together.
The justly famous opening, “Rock Island Line,” is an exercise in a capella rhythms designed to deliver necessary background information on Hill and his “line,” which worked fairly well.
The task of creating HH is assigned to Sean Leyes, a SBCT veteran with a variety of roles to his credit. With a smile always in place, he plunged through Hill’s tongue-twisting mostly-spoken solos successfully but the con man’s self-effacingly magnetic charm was lacking.
As the River City librarian who keeps Hill at a good distance for the first act, at least, Libby Klesmith is a matronly Marion, rather out of place opposite Leyes’ youthful salesman.
The town matrons, led by the mayor’s wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Marty Smith), are at their best when they “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little.” Unfortunately the comic dialogue in the song was drowned by a combination of blaring band and uncooperative sound system, obscuring all their reasons for disliking Marian.
The highlight of any “Music Man” has to be the feuding school board members, drawn together instantly by a note from Hill’s pitch pipe into an ever-singing barbershop quartet. Wayne Keppler, Ken Saur, Carey Treesh and Jacob Burbrink may not deliver the tightest harmonies, but they are close enough to make “Lida Rose,” “Goodnight Ladies” and “It’s You” remain my favorites.
Note to comedic second bananas: Louder definitely is not funnier.
Jennifer Paul’s choreography is well-executed, even when battling the band and Jim Geisel’s costumes are mostly colorful.
As always, Jacee Rohick’s set design is a pleasure to look at and easily delineates the various settings, from front porch to holiday fairground to school gymnasium.
Opening weekend found audience members program-less and advised to check the SBCT website, a situation we understand has been rectified for the rest of the run.
It is hard to tell the players without a program!
“THE MUSIC MAN” runs through Feb. 21 with shows at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, call 234-1112 noon to 6 p.m. weekdays.