The Music Man comes to town!
A crowded stage opens the second act with "Shipoopi"
There’s a reason that Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” has been a favorite for the American stage ever since it first debuted in 1957, and the reason is that the musical is just impossibly entertaining! The Malad Valley Theater Guild’s production, directed with confidence and a fantastic sense of momentum by Sue Stevens, did a great job of scaling down a major stage spectacle to the dimensions of the Iron Door Playhouse in a way that felt rich, full, and skillfully pulled off on every front. Staging a musical with so many actors and such a frantic, nonstop pace is no small feat, and the Guild pulled it off with aplomb.
Set in the fictional River City, Iowa in 1912, “The Music Man” is a quintessentially American tale. Professor Harold Hill (“Gary Conservatory Gold Medal Class of Aught Five!” as he frequently tells anyone who will listen), isn’t really a professor. And of course, he isn’t really named Harold. It probably goes without saying that the rest of it is equally untrue. Hill fits into a classic literary type in American comedy, the con man whose essentially decency is revealed as a result of unexpected human connections. As Hill becomes a part of the lives of the townspeople he initially hoped to swindle out of their money, he becomes less jaded and ultimately gives up his chance to escape and start his scheme all over again elsewhere. It turns out that he has fallen in love.
Like Huckleberry Finn’s monumental decision to help Jim escape, or Moses Pray’s realization that Addie is more important to him than money, Hill’s personal journey is about learning that the most important things in life are connected to community and other people. The core message of all of these stories is the fundamental comedy principle of seeking equilibrium—the “true” selves of our characters are always revealed by the end.
Brought in to inhabit the character was Jeff Richins, who played a rapid fire huckster with a very assured hand, especially given some of the verbal contortions demanded by the script. But because he’s both the protagonist and the male romantic lead, Hill’s character also requires a convincing charm and vulnerability as the plot moves toward its climax, which requires (nearly) the entire town to stand up for him. Richins sold both parts of the role very well, and was a joy to watch. From the brassy sales patter of the early 20th century to the quieter, personally revealing conversations with Marian, Richins put on a virtuoso performance.
Librarian Marian Paroo is another twist on an American type, the librarian hiding a passionate side behind a stern veneer of disapproval. Marian is a small-town librarian who at the beginning of the show serves as the source of rumors for the town. Her whispered about relationship with the town founder and her promotion of risqué classical writers (“Chaucer, Rabelais,…and Balzac!”) puts her at odds with the town’s reflexive conservatism. As the plot evolves, her character becomes more complicated than she at first appears. The role requires a lot of range and dynamic control vocally, and Ne’Cole Tracy did an amazing job with her songs in the show, making them clear standouts. She was also called upon to duet with Richins as well as McCall Clark as Amaryllis, and handled the different approaches deftly.
As a pair, Tracy and Richins were captivating in every scene they had together. Both were supremely assured and provided the acting and vocal talent to easily command the proceedings as the focal points.
But the supporting cast was also excellent. The performances of a large cast of characters were necessary to help create an active, bustling backdrop to the actions of the leads, and they were outstanding. Many of the characters provide consistent comic relief throughout the play. Cinniman Allen, adopting an Irish brogue as Mrs. Paroo, functioned as both the emotional heart of the play, as well as a necessary comic foil to Marian and Harold. Throughout the play, Allen’s reactions and physical awareness of the needs of the scene were subtle but critical to holding the play together.
As the starcrossed young romantics, Tommy (Joe Willie) and Zaneeta (Tatum Hess) did a great job inhabiting the roles of early 20th century teens, complete with the slang (“Great Honk!” “Egad!”) and energy that brought the pair to life as a model for the budding romance of the leads, and a foil to the stentorian severity of Mayor Shinn (Mike Brignone) and the town elders. Jeni Sperry’s Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn offered a middle ground between the two positions, at first following her husband’s lead at being suspicious of Hill, but gradually coming around to the joy provided by the resulting song and dance.
The group of “Pick-A-Little” ladies under Shinn’s dominion also created a sense of the constant presence of town busybodies. They included Linda Randall, Marie Smith, Christine Snow, Kylee Francom, and Britta Hansen.
Annie Brower, McKenna Brassfield, Cecilia Hess, Ada Campbell, and Madison Alvarez also created a running comic presence, as the Ladies Dance Auxilliary undertook their training and preparation for their dance debut.
The salesman, who set the tone for the play in the opening scene, also consistently provided moments of comedy throughout the play. Kris White as Charlie Cowell was called on to act as the primary villain of the piece, the salesman whose business is constantly being ruined by Harold Hill’s shenanigans along the sales route (“the territory” as the opening vocal round would have it). While menacing in the lighthearted manner of a musical comedy, White brought a presence to the part that was convincing and entertaining. His dyspeptic mugging sold the building frustration of the character as a motivation for his vendetta against Hill. Corban Sperry, Steve Atkinson, Mike Hess, Jr., and others helped round out the salesman, and filled several roles.
Jaden Hansen performed the role of Marcellus Washburn, Hill’s confidant and sometime collaborator. His clear affection for Hill helped ground the swindler’s change to an honest man.
One of the visuals most associated with the musical is the barbershop quartet. Early in the play, they are depicting as constantly at odds with one another. After Hill introduces them to the concept of singing together, they become something of a Greek chorus, entering scenes to comment on events or move the plot forward. In addition to good comic timing, they also provided legitimately great barbershop harmony. George Alger, Brian Jeppsen, Louis Dredge, and Dave Harris filled the roles, and were another delight every time they appeared on stage.
The Band Boys, who serve as the unruly ruffians that transform into the exuberantly untalented band by the end were composed of Gage Brower, Asher Brower, Liam Atkinson, Levi Balazs, Jessie Balazs, William Whipple, Joe Willie, Hyrum Spencer, and Jayson Spencer. As Winthrop Paroo, Liam Atkinson also had the challenge of emoting under the conceit that a severe lisp prevented him from speaking much. Atkinson, Tracy, and Allen did a great job of creating a believable family dynamic together. The concern and affection that Marian feels for Winthrop is critical to her change in attitude toward Hill, and the pair worked very well together, playing off of Allen’s matriarch, to make that a highlight of the show.
Rounding out the cast were the townspeople, who helped fill the stage and make the town seem full and busy. The townspeople included Addie Brower, Amy Giles, Caroline Whipple, Doris Young, Elizabeth Ward, Emmaline Francom, Isabella Snow, Kaleigh Worrell, Karmyn Charles, Kassidy Martin, London Hess, Natalie Webster, Nicole White, Sarah Beyler, Serena Whipple, Sofia Hess, Tabitha Webster, and Mike Hess Jr.
The choreography by Kaleigh Worrell and Ada Campbell was especially impressive in this production. On the one hand, during many scenes the choreography was used to great effect to add visual comic relief to the scenes involving the Ladies Dance Auxilliary. But Worrell and Campbell also needed to manage the movement of a large number of actors on stage in a way that remained clear, but also supported the rhythm and tone of the scene. Several numbers were especially impressive in this regard, including a comic dance scene in “Marian the Librarian” and, of course, “Shipoopi,” the large dance number that opens the second act of the play right out of intermission.
The music tech and light operator for the show was Laurie Richins. Along with the sets and design by Jeni Sperry, the production captured just the right later summer feeling that the musical is associated with. Mic Tech Brenda Daniels kept levels in check so that there were no issues with the large variations in range, from the show’s more intimate conversational moments to the large, bombastic crowd scenes. The sound in all of its forms was particularly impressive in the duets.
The sets themselves ranged between minimal and sumptuous, with the Paroo family home and the library being standouts. The main backdrop for the town was simple and effective, and created a perfect illusion of inhabited space. The sets were constructed by Kevin Stevens, Scott Alder, and Jeff Richins. The paintings were done by Rex Lippold.
Sets and costumes were designed, maintained, repaired by Ada Campbell, Shannon Worrell, and Madison Alvarez, and involved a large number of outfits. From the iconic marching band uniforms, to the early 20th century salesman getups, to a range of turn of the century fashions, the overall effect was unified and impressively coordinated. The props and set dressing similarly tied the show together in way that made the time period come to life.
Ella Sperry was the stage manager. Programs were created by Anessa Gibbs, and Concession was managed by Anita Jeppsen.
Once again, the Malad Valley Theater Guild put on an impressive and highly entertaining performance. The theater was nearly full during the run, with a sellout crowd on Friday, necessitating the overflow. It was a perfect way to bring a little of the warmth of midsummer to town as outside winter makes itself known. Congratulations to all the performers, crew, and organizers involved in a great show!