Stratford triumphs with The Music Man

Stratford triumphs with The Music Man

Daren A. Herbert (centre) as Harold Hill with members of the company.
Photo Cylla van Tiedemann
The Music Man.

STRATFORD, Ontario — You start having a good feeling about the Stratford Festival’s latest revival of The Music Man from the very beginning.

That‘s because of how brilliantly it brings off that audacious opening scene on a train bound for River City, Iowa, in 1912. It’s a guy setting  — a lot of traveling salesmen here — and they can’t stop talking and attempting bits of one-upmanship with each other. But it’s no normal conversation — no music, just snippets of dialogue snapping back and forth to the jiggling rhythms of the passenger car and reaching an almost fugal complexity.

The execution of this number at Stratford, as funny as it is culturally revealing, testifies to the high ensemble qualities of this production — qualities that will continue to dazzle as the show progresses.

Right on the heels of this number comes a further crucial testing. Harold Hill, the breezy con man who calls himself “professor,” has descended jauntily from that train and is now preparing to dupe the good citizens of River City with his bogus promise to create a marching band for the local youth — provided they are foolish enough to give him money. And what sort of pitch wins them over? It’s this song called Trouble in which he tells gullible parents that their kids are in danger from “dissipation” unless they invest in band lessons, musical instruments, and marching uniforms for their offspring.

But again, it’s not a conventional song. Daren A. Herbert is the actor playing Harold Hill, and he doesn’t just need to conquer the parents on stage, he also needs to win over the audience in the Festival Theatre by taking control of a tongue-twisting number that is fraught with linguistic and rhythmic ambushes. But Herbert is an exhilarating presence and equipped with razor-sharp show-biz instincts. Therefore, no sweat: he skips nimbly into the song with a grinning confidence that is infectious. There’s swagger too — but it disarms.

This young actor’s delivery of Trouble is a triumph. Meredith Willson’s evergreen musical goes back more than 60 years, yet, now, in the year 2018, it reminds us of the way in which past, present and future alike can keep nurturing musical theatre tradition. Trouble is a number that reaches back to the patter-song brilliance of Gilbert and Sullivan while also offering a portent of a hip-hop culture that today is finding its place within an ever-evolving genre. This is a Music Man that resonates in unexpected ways.

But as always the supreme litmus test comes with Seventy-Six Trombones. That’s when Harold the huckster turns into Harold the showman and seduces the whole darn population of River City into a kaleidoscope of swirling, high-stepping joy. It’s with this number, one of the most famous in the annals of musical theatre, that director-choreographer Donna Feore displays not only her inventiveness but the kind of blazing theatricality that is able to hook an audience more and more intensely with a succession of brilliantly executed climaxes. The performance of this number, so much fun that you hope it will never end, embraces the audience in a way that demands applause throughout as it keeps topping itself again and again before becoming — in more ways than one — an airborne delight.

This is an exuberant, warm-hearted and sleekly executed show — a major triumph from Donna Feore, whose use of the daunting Festival Theatre stage has never been better, but also a shared achievement because of the stellar contributions of musical director Franklin Brasz, set designer Michael Gianfrancesco, costume designer Dana Walton and lighting designer Michael Walton.

One suspects however, that Feore and her colleagues saw a possible minefield in Harold Hill’s amorous pursuit of Marian Paroo, the local librarian who initially suspects that he’s nothing more than a snake-oil salesman. Given that we’re currently living in a culture in which even a casual flirtation can seem suspect in many quarters, how does one deal with the troublesome Marion the Librarian number, which is dominated by Harold’s determined attempt to woo her and win her?

It is a number that can be uncomfortable to watch. In one earlier Stratford production, Harold’s tactics went beyond harassment — they became physical intimidation. But here, the staging transforms proceedings into an inventive and witty battle of wills with Danielle Wade’s feisty Marian holding her own against the cheeky overtures of Daren A, Herbert’s Harold. It also marks the moment when Wade, an actress with a strong, confident singing voice, starts gaining strength in this role after a somewhat tentative beginning.

The musical numbers are so spectacularly good that it would be easy to say that they alone offer sufficient reason for attending The Music Man. There’s no denying the blast-off delights of Trombones, Shipoopi, or The Wells Fargo Wagon, a musical conveyance that yields its own heady surprises in this production There are also the more modest pleasures of a song like the Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little, sung by a gossipy chorus of townswomen, or the engaging presence of a roaming barbershop quartet. But there is also a genuine community feel to this Music Man, and that’s because of a rich gallery of individual performances. So bouquets are also in order for Steve Ross and Blythe Wilson as the bombastic town mayor and his snooty wife; for Alexander Elliott, terrific as Marion’s shy tongue-tied brother, Winthrop, and a warmly endearing Denise Oucharek as their mother; and for Mark Uhre who makes his own explosive contribution in the Shipoopi number.

Feore has clearly done some hard thinking about ensuring The Music Man a continuing place in a culture that has changed a great deal since its premiere more than sixty years ago. It was always an affectionate memory piece filtered through the prism of Meredith Willson’s rose-tinted remembrances of his own Mason City childhood. But the conventions of Broadway in the 1950s did not envisage the kind of pluralistic culture that springs so buoyantly to life in Stratford’s evocation of River City. For sure, the festival’s Music Man may have been reborn as an idealized fairy tale as a way of insulating it from history — but so what? The festival is committed to expanding the tent, and more power to it. It seeks both to celebrate and rethink an evergreen work of musical theatre. This freshly burnished revival is the memorable result.


(The Music Man continues until Nov. 3)




Comments are closed.