You might think you’ve seen Meredith Willson’s classic Broadway show The Music Man enough times never to see it again, no matter how beloved it is in your memory (and the memories of countless others). But it is still possible to enjoy a fresh new production of this community and professional theater staple, as the Asolo Rep’s season opener proves.
It’s not that director Jeff Calhoun’s conception of the show is radically different from others you’ve seen (aside, perhaps, from the thread of tap dancing that runs throughout it, courtesy of Calhoun and choreographer Paul McGill, who’s cooked up some doozy numbers). It’s more that the cast and creative team (including music director Steve Orich, who’s perfectly in synch with his performers and the score) see the musical as if it’s brand-new to them and to us.
From the opening number, “Rock Island,” which features those traveling salesman cleverly using their chairs and their bodies to mimic the action of a train bound for River City, there’s a zest and a joy in delivering this material that continues until the closing curtain. Those chairs are quickly used next by Iowa’s River “Citians,” who introduce themselves to us in “Iowa Stubborn.” (The set, by Tobin Ost, wisely employs minimal suggestions of the town—store signs, house fronts, etc.--to bring it to life, so that all the action flows easily.)
Little do those citizens know that they and their town are about to be magically transformed by Professor Harold Hill (Noah Racey), a slick-talking con man whose line is (you guessed it) brass bands, complete with uniforms. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t know one note of music from another; from the moment of his arrival, he plays River City’s people like a maestro. He can turn four squabbling school board members into a harmonizing barbershop quartet (are you listening, Sarasota?), bamboozle the town’s word-fumbling mayor (Lenny Wolpe) and his “artistic,” domineering wife, Eulalie (Matthew McGee in a frequently hilarious drag turn), and help the librarian’s virtually mute little brother Winthrop (Charles Shoemaker) turn into a talker, despite his lisp.
His stumbling block, of course, may be that librarian, Marian (Britney Coleman), whose confident air and energy enable her to take on the gossiping ladies of the town as well as any glib traveling man. Never fear, we know the happy ending here, but it’s delightful to watch the pair work their way toward it in the fun scene staged for “Marian the Librarian.” Racey as Hill taps his way around in pursuit of the standoffish Marian; Coleman’s more than his match when it comes to stage presence and personality, as well as singing beautifully on “My White Knight.”
Racey also puts his fancy footwork to good use atop a pool table in the iconic “Ya Got Trouble” and on “The Sadder But Wiser Girl” with sidekick Marcellus (an ebullient Danny Gardner). And the ensemble gets into the act on Act II’s “Shipoopi”; it’s the one number I’ve often thought not that necessary to the show, but here it serves to show just how much the town has been changed from when we first met its residents on “Iowa Stubborn.”
Racey’s dancing, and his connection with the audience, are stronger than his vocals; he’s not a great singer, technically, but then I’m not sure Robert Preston, who owned the role originally, was, either. It’s a credit to the Asolo production that we’re not drawn to constantly compare the film version many of us recall with this one, which stands on its own.
The cast here is multiracial, which was most likely not the case in 1912 small-town Iowa, but it lends an air of unity and community to the show that is welcome.
The Music Man continues through Dec. 29; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.