Just hearing that unmistakable cadence of the opening drum, it immediately becomes clear—“The Music Man” is in town! Now, Meredith Willson’s 1957 “Tony Award” Winning musical masterpiece of both musical comedy and classic Americana is the present offering from the team at “One More Productions”—the Orange County based theater company currently celebrating their 13th anniversary in residence at the landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California. Featuring Music, Lyrics and Book by Willson (based on a story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey,) the direction here is by “One More Production’s” Co-founder, Damien Lorton, with Choreography by Shauna Bradford, Heather Smith, and Allan Collins. “One More Production’s new re-staging reminds us once again just what a fun, feel-good romp this show has been, and why it so steadfastly remains so! In keeping with what is fast becoming a noble tradition for audiences at “The Gem”, here is another classic–even beloved–show from Broadway’s “Golden Age”, which celebrates the “Bedrock” virtues of hearth, home and community. Indeed, the cast and crew of “One More Productions” latest have every reason to be proud—not just because they get to experience being part of such a venerated classic as is “The Music Man”, but also because they can say they were a part of this specific—extremely enjoyable–production of it!
An unabashed breath of fresh air as far as musicals go, “The Music Man” is loosely inspired by Willson’s own boyhood in Mason City Iowa, and follows the fast-talking and furtive antics of shady traveling salesman, ‘Professor’ “Harold Hill”, as he plans to con the people of small-town “River City”, Iowa (circa 1912) into buying instruments and uniforms for a boys’ band that he assures them he will organize (–this, despite the fact that “he can’t tell a bass drum from a pipe-organ”—nor the first thing about one trombone—let alone ‘seventy-six’ of them!) His plans to skip town with the cash are foiled though when he falls for “Marian Paroo”, the town’s prim Librarian and Piano teacher, who ultimately transforms him into a respectable citizen by the final curtain’s fall. With a Gold-medal score that boasts such standards as “Seventy-Six Trombones”, “Goodnight My Someone”, “Gary Indiana”, “Till There Was You” and the mile-a-minute tongue-twister, “Trouble In River City”, “The Music Man” is at length uproarious, romantic, touching, and it all adds up to family-friendly entertainment at its most unforgettable! Willson brought to the Broadway stage styles of music that had never been tried there before—or at least not really tried in this way. Furthermore, he perceptively found and demonstrated the ‘musicality’ of everyday life, such as how the debate the traveling salesmen engage in amid the prologue, titled “Rock City” mimics the cadence of the train they’re supposedly riding on; or how the gossiping ladies of “River City” sound suspiciously like a gaggle of old hens with their classic “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little”. Willson even effectively made a child’s piano exercise serve as the background to a ‘melodized’ conversation Marian and her mother undertake as part of “The Piano Lesson”. On top of adapting a genuine ‘classic” song or two of the era to help add authenticity to the time and place being portrayed, he incorporated several numbers performed in “Barbershop Quartet’ style—using an additional ‘counterpoint” harmony that pairs several songs with different lyrics and completely separate melodies, but which harmonize well together when they are combined! Broadway “Traditionalists” needn’t fear either—there are plenty of good, old-fashioned—infinitely memorable “show-tunes” to be enjoyed as well, and the cast here never fail to achieve superlative results.
Director Lorton once again insightfully plays up several frequently over-looked or marginalized details within the story, also making exceptional use of the total stage-space while occasionally even utilizing the full-auditorium to tremendous, efficacious effect. He also keeps the over-all progression of the show fairly swiftly paced, handily packing in quite a large story while still nicely managing to balance all its various components (–and in this show there are many!) This is apparent right from the start where he has devised a refreshing new take on the prologue titled “Rock Island”, integrating much more movement than might be expected–as a band of traveling salesmen on board a train debate the tactics of our hero—one “Harold Hill”, thus laying the foundation for the larger plot to follow. (Like so many numbers in the score, this one practically dares your toes not to tap!) The first real group effort, “Iowa Stubborn” constitutes an awesome introduction to the full ensemble, evidencing some impressive group harmonizing as the citizens of the town of “River City” welcome Harold to Iowa and suggest he ‘give it try’ (provided he choose another city in which to do it, and they even give him the courtesy of listing such places at the song‘s end.) Shortly thereafter, they amaze again backing the iconic “You Got Trouble”. “The Wells Fargo Wagon” marks another triumph for the entire cast at the close of Act One—wherein young “Winthrop Paroo” is at last inspired to ‘come out of his shell’ by the arrival of the promised band instruments. It’s a moving, and very well-staged moment as this noteworthy plot-point is pleasantly granted its due importance. The ebullient Finale is still another commendable joint enterprise comprising a loftier and even more jubilant reprise of “Seventy-Six Trombones”.
This time around, the choreography fell to no less than three considerable talents—Bradford, Smith and Collins; their combined choreographic contributions are fittingly ‘vaudeville’ influenced with a few knowing winks to the original Broadway production’s choreography by the legendary “Onna White”. Here too, the dancers in the cast more than make their mighty presence known—first with “Seventy-Six Trombones”—taking charge with a nimble amalgam of moves from waltz and polka steps, to some stylish balletic exchanges, indubitably making this a first act Highlight. They similarly instill the big “Marian The Librarian” number with some great ‘soft-shoe’ rhythmic steps, during its dance interlude—always keeping pristine time to the steady, driving rhythm it contains. Moreover, The ladies of the group also add fine –and funny—finesse to the herky-jerky movements of “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little”, while directly after intermission, the whole gang come together again to inaugurate the second act in grand style with “Shipoopi”. Equal parts square-dance and cake-walk, it’s frenetic fun and a first-class spirit-raiser! This too, is soon followed up with what’s titled the “It’s You Ballet”–as the young people of “River City” head to the near-fabled “‘foot-bridge” (and local make-out spot”) for a little fast-paced frolic filled with the embodiment of youthful exuberance.
Like “Major Bowes” in a straw-hat and dandy bow-tie, at the center of all the action is Johnny Fletcher as “Professor Harold Hill” (and comparable to that acclaimed radio showman, he brings music and culture into everyone’s life!) Bestowing on us a more dapper, elegant (and charmingly roguish) Song-And Dance man reminiscent of say, Gene Kelly or Jimmy Cagney, he delivers a commanding “You Got Trouble” oozing unctuousness with every line! Shortly thereafter he practically beams–striking theatrical gold with the show’s signature piece—“Seventy Six Trombones”. However, in that they are both more ‘patter songs’ Fletcher doesn’t really get to truly exhibit his full vocal talents until the rapid-fire intonation of “The Sadder But Wiser Girl”, or when smoothly crooning “Marian The Librarian”; once he’s does though, it’s exceedingly worth the wait. He also excels with his 11 O’Clock reprise of “Good Night My Someone” just before the show’s climactic finale. Starring opposite him is Erika Baldwin as the town’s Librarian “Marian Paroo”.
Having proven her talents time and again on the “Gem” stage, Ms. Baldwin renders some highly laudable work in her own right, adding “Marian The Librarian” to her considerable acting—and just as significantly, singing repertoire. There’s a special thrill in seeing the perfect performer meeting the perfect role which features the perfect songs for their abilities and such is definitely the case here. With this role she especially shines conveying her half of the lilting duet, “Good Night My Someone”–quickly establishing it as a bona-fide winner early on. It’s also a splendid introduction to our winsome, but still stalwart and determined Heroine, while giving her gold-medal vocal talent a showcase deserving of it! Later, her rendition of “My White Knight” is lush, full and sumptuously carried out with just the right touch of dreaminess before building into a powerful crescendo. Together with Fletcher, the pair practically leave one breathless with their sumptuous interpretation of the iconic “Till There Was You”. Often considered to be the score’s ‘crowning glory”, here they serenade one another (and the audience) with pure and illustrious melody–making for yet another showstopper late in the proceedings!
Another appealing element to this particular show is all the downright delightful “supporting characters” who add so much to the overall goings-on. These include Sophia Scarsi who dazzlingly ascends into the role ingénue with what could arguably be the ‘bravura of ingénue roles’–the Mayor’s wide-eyed and giddy teenage daughter, “Zaneeta Shinn”! Likewise, Zack Martinez hits all the right notes as the squeaky voiced, “Tommy Djilas”—re-imagining and re-invigorating the character as less of a rough-around-the edges adolescent tough and more a shy, but good-natured kid from a more modest family. Scarsi and Martinez make a thoroughly likable young couple here, paired frequently together in the various dance breaks such as when they take center-stage to lead the terpsichorean ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ in “Marian The Librarian” and the “It’s You Ballet”. As Marian’s mother “Mrs. Paroo” Carmen Tunis—another familiar face at “The Gem” makes this character absolutely her own—conjuring up an engaging sense of “moxie” (along with a spot-on Irish Brogue!) Not to be overlooked either is Jon Michell, who’s all bluster and even bigger laughs as “Mayor Shinn”—of whim we’re told “has the finest moustache in 17 counties!” Shannon Page too, is lovably and laughably larger-than-life as his wife—the “first lady” of River City—“Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn”. With an extravagantly shrill voice and outrageously frizzy hair, Ms. Page manifests humongous comic energy—not only as the key player in “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little” and its reprise, but first while decked out as the “Statue Of Liberty”, leading the cast in a few rousing stanzas of the classic “Columbia, Gem Of The Ocean”. (For this, the first substantial scene-change of the show, the patriotic ode is quite appropriately employed as the lead-in to the town’s fourth of July festivities; primarily seeing as the story is set in 1912, that really would have been deemed among the closest things to a National Anthem the country had at the time!)
Timothy Klega also puts an estimable stamp on his portrayal of Hill’s former-cohort in the confidence-game now turned “Legit”, “Marcellus Wahburn”. Skilled with a considerable voice of his own, he belts it out to the back-row in Act One with his part in “The Sadder But Wiser Girl”, then again in Act Two” while leading “Shipoopi”. Meanwhile, John Gillies also impresses as “Charlie Cowell”, the rogue traveling salesman out to expose Hill, depicting him as less of a caricature, and supplying him with a stimulating believability. This makes his implied threats less artificial and more something palpable that our heroes have to deal with. Another, (albeit much younger and more diminutive) presence warranting just as much praise is Katie Bordelon in the role of Marian’s little ‘brother’, “Winthrop Paroo”. As “He”, she scores handsomely with “Gary, Indiana”—giving us a lively version of this playful, if oddly syncopated, favorite. Remarkable as well are guest-group “The Accidentals” as the four members of the school board who emerge as the town’s resident barbershop quartet. Often providing a musical juxtaposition to other songs, they too, are sure-fire crowd favorites–and they consistently succeed at entertaining–and even astounding—sans any accompaniment! Starting with the affable “Sincerely” and the classic “Goodnight, Ladies” (which serves as a melodious and complement to “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little”,) each sounds as rich and warm as fresh churned butter—and all of the tunes they execute are as satisfying as we’d hope or expect. Their latter chanson, “Lida Rose”, when joined by Baldwin’s summery ‘rocking chair on the porch” solo, “Dream Of Now” burgeons into another knock-out post-intermission interlude this production can claim —and ranks as an all-around grand-slam home-run for everyone involved.
Wally Huntoon’s breezy, bucolic sets feature forested backdrops, clever fold-away and roll-on set pieces, which literally enable the town of “River City” to appear and disappear as needed, in a flash. Jon Hyrkas effervescent and colorful lighting design functions as a kind of prismatic punctuation to the stage-pictures materializing before us—furnishing just the right mood or essence of memory as required. Every bit as sublime are Larry Watts snazzy ‘Edwardian-era’ meets the mid-west’ pre-World War One period costumes, that make terrific use of gingham, ostrich plumed chapeaux, and layered dresses for the ladies and high collars, Ascot caps, derby and boater style hats, and Knickerbocker pants for the gentlemen, all with a correspondingly daring use of the color palate. Worthy of sizable regard too, is the ever diligent and dexterous seven piece orchestra (also under the guidance of Lorton) who collectively purvey the dulcet fuel for the show to soar on.
There’s no ‘sin’ in this ‘sincere’ recommendation: You really ought to give “The Music Man” at “The Gem Theatre” a try! So head to Garden Grove CA (With a capital “G”, that rhymes with “P”–and, in this case, that stands for “Polished” and “Pleasing”!) Having officially opened on Saturday, April 22nd, performances are slated to run through Sunday, May 14th, 2017 at The GEM Theatre, located at 12853 Main Street in Garden Grove California. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM; there will be an additional Saturday Matinee on May 6th and May 13th at 2:00 PM as well. Tickets and reservations can be procured either via phone by calling “One More Productions” at (714) 741-9550 ext. 221. or by logging onto” www.onemoreproductions.com ; discounts for seniors and children (12 years and under) are available for all performances, while special “Student Rush” tickets can be obtained for Thursday and Friday performances.
Production Stills By Lisa Scarsi, Courtesy Of Shoko Araki And “One More Productions” (www.onemoreproductions.com) Special Thanks To Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Lisa Scarsi, Shoko Araki, Shauna Bradford, Heather Smith, Allan Collins And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Gem Theatre” and One More Productions’ 2017 Production Of “The Music Man” For Making This Story Possible.