Friday, August 03, 2012

Review of Ash Lawn Opera's 'The Music Man'

If you fear that Ash Lawn Opera’s summer production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man will offer surprises or innovations, be not afraid. This is just about as conventional a version of the classic 1957 musical comedy that you’re likely to see in this or any other season.

Having just reread Willson’s own account of the trials and tribulations that resulted in the original production (But He Doesn’t Know the Territory,’ published in 1959), I understand how his book (co-authored with Franklin Lacey) became ironclad. Only complete incompetency could breach that armor. That would explain, in part, why The Music Man is such a favorite of community and high school theatre troupes with limited resources.

Director Cate Caplin’s mounting at the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville is more than competent despite some static and clunky blocking (due, perhaps, to the Paramount’s shallow stage area crowded with a large cast of 50 players) and a low energy level – neither of which seem to have bothered the near sell-out crowd in the audience, which thoroughly enjoyed the performance from start to finish.

Helping keep the balls in the air was conductor Jon Kalbfleisch, visiting from Signature Theatre in Arlington, who had the pleasure of directing a musical ensemble collected from around the country, including representatives from the Miami Symphony, Orlando Philharmonic, Florida Grand Opera, and Sarasota Orchestra. (Don’t they do music in Florida in the summer?) Sad to say, it was a nearly unique pleasure to hear a pit orchestra that was on pitch from the very first note of the overture to the last note of the bows. “Sad to say” because such discipline is all too rare in productions like this, and a greater pleasure on account of that.

It was a bit jarring, at first, to hear the principals’ operatic voices singing songs intended for musical-comedy actors. One could detect baritone Trevor Scheunemann (as Professor Harold Hill) fighting the urge to put full voice behind the patter songs that Willson so conscientiously wrote for the character (and not, as some might imagine, for the vocally-limited Robert Preston, who first played the role on Broadway).

Emily Albrink’s soprano is heavier than one might imagine Marion Paroo’s voice, suggesting a greater maturity than the 26-year-old character should possess. Still, her renditions of “Good Night, My Someone,” “Till There Was You,” “My White Knight,” and “Will I Ever Tell You” are lovely throughout.

(The maturity question comes into play in a couple of dubious casting choices. Sarah Kraus, who plays Marian’s mother, is about Albrink’s age and is simply unconvincing as an Irish immigrant in her mid- to late 40s. And baritone Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek is way too old to be playing teenager Tommy Djilas. Since that is largely a non-singing role, director Caplin could easily have given it to an additional young local actor, such as an older brother of those who fill out the hefty ensemble.)

Local actor Pat Owen – not an opera singer, but with a number of musical plays under his belt – is a blustery, curmudgeonly, grumpy, spooneristic Mayor Shinn. Paul Ford and David Burns would be proud to have him follow in their footsteps.

If any of the principals stood out, it had to be Meredith Arwady as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor’s wife. Chewing scenery shamelessly, Arwady had the audience eating it up with her and licking their fingers so as not to miss a bit. Every time she walked – or waltzed – on stage, the energy level in the theatre rose by several degrees. Obviously happy to have a role she could have fun with, Arwady played with it to the limit.

Speaking of limits, Ash Lawn Opera has long been known as short on dance and long on music, which makes sense given its mission. Consequently, the choreography in this production was simple – staged movement in most cases, some marching here and there. The dance break in “Marian the Librarian” was cut substantially, and the footbridge ballet was also circumscribed. (Why the soft-shoe encore of “Gary, Indiana,” a guaranteed applause getter, was also cut mystifies me.)

What dance there was, was executed mostly competently and effectively, although a few missteps could be detected -- not, as one might expect, from the youngest and most amateur members of the cast, but rather by the young opera artists, who seemed outside their element.

To be fair, The Music Man has never been a demanding dance show. The original production’s producers were confident enough to entrust the choreography to a first-timer, Onna White, in recognition of this fact. (White was rewarded with a Tony nomination, as it happens.)

The set design by Evan A. Bartoletti and Lisa D. Lechuga (billed together as Lechetti Design) evoked a 1912-ish Fourth of July in small-town Iowa without being too naturalistic. The dark tones might have been more at home on a Ragtime stage, but that did not detract too much from the atmosphere.

For his part, Stevie Agnew’s lighting design made ample use of a favorite technique of Morton Da Costa, the director of the original stage production and 1962 film of The Music Man – a tightly focused iris effect, isolating one or two actors at a critical moment of the play. Da Costa used it in Auntie Mame, as well, but the two plays had different lighting designers (Howard Bay on The Music Man, Peggy Clark on Auntie Mame), so the conceit seems to belong to the director. Bay, as it happens, was the first member of the creative team to sign up for The Music Man once Kermit Bloomgarden agreed to produce it; Da Costa joined up shortly afterward.

Special praise is due to costume designer Shon LeBlanc, if nothing else than for sheer output. There have to be 100 or more costumes in this show, and each one is true to the era and to the character it represents.

People today sometimes react with bewilderment when they learn that The Music Man beat out West Side Story for the best new musical Tony Award in 1958. They think that West Side Story, after all, was the edgier show and the one with a collaborative team of Revered Giants Of The Theatre – Bernstein, Laurents, Robbins, and Sondheim – plus it was “socially relevant.”

Yet even 55 years later, it’s clear that The Music Man is the better musical play: a more solid book, a more innovative score, more colorful characters, better-constructed and -integrated. West Side Story remains flawed at several levels (some flaws tracing back to Shakespeare) while The Music Man is still more fully formed, even in a strictly conventional production like the one Ash Lawn Opera is presenting in Charlottesville.

Note:  The Music Man holds a special place in my heart.  It was the first show I appeared in (post-high school), at St. Bernard's Studio Theatre in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.  That show was 35 years ago this summer -- a 20th anniversary production of The Music Man that will always be remembered.

Ash Lawn Opera’s The Music Man has three more performances at the Paramount: August 4 at 7:30 p.m.; August 5 at 2:00 p.m.; and August 7 at 7:30 p.m. Each performance is preceded by a lecture that begins 45 minutes before curtain time. For ticket information, consult

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