Family entertainment takes on new meaning—on both sides of the footlights—with the return of Professor Harold Hill (last seen peddling his delightful wares in 1996) to Broadway-on-the-Avon.
The sheer energy, joy and extraordinarily cohesive cast have come together and provided the happy throngs with a musical comedy that truly lives up to its billing.
Playwright/composer/lyricist Meredith Willson’s tale of a slick salesman turning River City, Iowa on its head by first creating a problem (“Ya Got Trouble” the moral ruin of the town’s youth due to the recent addition of a pool table alongside the snooker table at the mayor of all the citizens’ billiard hall) then solving it (the establishment of a boys’ band—complete with shiny new instruments and Mounty-red uniforms). Trouble is the professor received his musical credentials from the conservatory of the imagination. He uses the “think” system to magically cause neophyte clarinetists to play Beethoven’s Minuet in G—“Ya don’t bother with the notes!”
In dozens of other towns, Hill (Jonathan Goad, who leads the merry show with verve and zest but comes up a few measures short of Robert Preston’s benchmark performance—1957—both on the stage and in Moron DaCosta’s 1962 film) takes cash down for the instruments then more when the uniforms arrive before abandoning his hopeful students with nary a note being heard.
And so that well-practised con game is set to have an encore in small-town Iowa until the mythical maestro meets “old maid” Marian Paroo, town librarian and piano teacher. Leah Oster is a near-ideal choice for the role: she looks the part, has the acting chops to sail through her character’s transformation from suspicious skeptic (her research confirms Hill’s bogus past) to loving defender and has the vocal skills to do justice to Willson’s memorable ballad, “Till There Was You.” But let’s be greedy! If Oster could temper her vibrato (rather than leave it at full bore) and support the register changes before entering the stratosphere, the musical side of her performance could soon move from great to spectacular.
The rest of Marian’s family members have especial values of their own. Michelle Fisk as her widowed mom puts on the brogue with engaging style even as she encourages her dateless daughter to grab a man before it’s too late. Much younger brother, Winthrop has the famous speech impediment that, combined with the death of his father, makes him the complete introvert until Hill’s lure of a gleaming cornet pulls the 10-year-old out of his shell. The gods of casting managed to land Christopher Van Hagen for the role and the young lad can’t help but steal every scene he’s in (“Gary, Indiana” will bring down the house every time). The remarkable over-achiever can handle the lisp, sing, dance, conduct and play a snare drum with a skill that might make for nervous cheers from Bert Carrière’s seasoned pros in the pit.
OK then, let’s get this over with: As always, the apparently unthinkable notion of not using sound reinforcement on and below the stage results in an artificial sound which detracts from the considerable abilities and natural projection capabilities of the entire troupe. The reliance on microphones (not really needed in such a modest-size venue) also unwittingly contributes to the “untogetherness” of the many songs (e.g., “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little”) that are brimming with Willson’s snap, crackle and rap lyrics. Here’s to pulling the plugs and finding the groove!
Happily, the barbershop quartet (particularly the steady bass foundation from Marcus Nance) overcame the mics-from-hell and delivered their up-close-and-personal harmonies and modulations with conviction and flair. Merci mille fois!
But let’s not fool ourselves. None of this excellence could have happened without director Susan Schulman’s vision, Patrick Clark’s wood-slat, rolling-stock sets (the chase through the streets of River City is a marvel on its own) and—critical to this show—Michael Lichtefeld’s deft choreography. The latter deserves extra kudos for planning the production numbers (the hands-down favourite is “Shipoopi”) around the skill sets available rather than plying the cast with moves and steps that would challenge the pros on Dancing With the Stars.
And here we were rewarded with Eric Robertson (playing other-side-of-the-tracks Tommy Djilas) unleashed. He tore up the stage with finesse, balance, athleticism and a smile that could melt an iceberg that never slipped into the “circus” gimmicks which—like cheap laughs—are frequently favoured by other dance directors and only draw attention away from the story.
This show is a veritable family treat that should be seen and savoured before November’s last march-past of “76 Trombones.” JWR