Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Trickster and the Spinster

Ashton Byrum brings a genial charm to the role of  Prof. Harold Hill. Photos by Keith Stewart
"Goodnight, My Someone:" Blaine Lehman with Leah Berry

Oh, there’s nothing halfway
About the Iowa way to treat you,
When we treat you
Which we may not do at all.
There’s an Iowa kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
We’ve never been without.
    “Iowa Stubborn” from “The Music Man.”

By Dan Hagen
“The Music Man,” opening today at the Little Theatre, is one of the best Broadway musicals of the 20th century, but a shadow always falls across it.
I think some of the most enduring American musicals have mythological roots, tapping into the universal human stories that seem to be hard-wired into our collective unconsciousness. For example, phony band instrument salesman Prof. Harold Hill is clearly the Trickster, the rule-breaking protagonist who — like the Greek Titan Prometheus, the Australian Aboriginal culture hero Crow and the Native American god Coyote — brings fire to a struggling humanity.
When Hill arrives, turn-of-the-century River City, Iowa, is moribund, so narrowly and stubbornly self-satisfied that it is effectively dead. And even though he’s a con man, Hill brings the community an inadvertent gift — spontaneity, light and life, a new kind of independence on Independence Day 1912. Even his name, itself a fake, suggests height and aspiration.
So Meredith Willson’s comedy is psychologically satisfying, and marches a collection of toe-tapping hits past the audience, with “Marian the Librarian” and “76 Trombones” boasting especially exuberant, legs-aloft dance numbers here thanks to director and choreographer Amy Marie McCleary.
With a dozen great numbers in “The Music Man,” I always wonder what Marian’s song “My White Knight” is doing there. It’s the one song from the show no one ever remembers, and with good reason.
Still, why quibble? The 1957 production won five Tonys and a Grammy, running for 1,375 performances. But sometimes a show’s very success can work against subsequent productions.
The shadow of Streisand falls across all productions of “Funny Girl,” and all productions of “The Music Man” labor under the shadow of Robert Preston as Harold Hill.
Chicago performer Ashton Byrum gamely tackles the role here. Although he lacks Preston’s commanding briskness of movement, Byrum sells his con man with a genial charm and a stage presence that includes shining eyes. He is paired with Leah Berry as Marian, and she has just the ringing voice to deliver those two old-fashioned but still-thrilling love songs, “Goodnight My Someone” and “Till There Was You.”
I always forget how touching that last song is, perhaps because it’s about redemption for both the characters — the trickster snared by love, and the spinster saved by it.
I don’t remember caring much about the barbershop singers Hill cons so adroitly throughout the show, but I did in this one. C.J. Pawlikowski, Jared Titus, Lincoln Ward and Loren J. Connell are real crowd pleasers here.
John McAvaney is a lively comic foil as Hill’s old pal Marcellus, and Cary Mitchell brings forceful conviction and dead-on timing to the minor role of Hill’s anvil salesman antagonist. Mitchell also enunciates loudly and clearly, an absolute necessity in a show full of arcane, funny terms like “a bare-faced, double-shuffle, two-bit thimble rigger.”
John Reeger (the Major General in “Pirates”) is another master of language and comic timing as River City Mayor Shinn, and his malapropisms are delicious. “I couldn't make myself any plainer if I'se a Quaker on his day off!” he explains. Shinn recognizes that Hill is “slipperier than a Mississippi sturgeon,” for all the good it does him.
My long-time friend Therese Kincade has the role of Marian’s mother, and reminds me what a rich little part that can be. Mrs. Paroo’s plain-spoken, small-town Irishness is a perfect contrast to her worldly understanding. “It’s a well-known principle that if you keep the flint in one drawer and the steel in the other, you'll never strike much of a fire,” she explains to Marian, and she’s not talking about steel and flint.
Finally there’s Winthrop, the role that famed film director Ron Howard had when he was an adorable little boy. Here it’s Oliver Adamson from Moweaqua, and he is equally adorable. The audience’s enthusiasm for him washes through the theatre in tidal waves of applause.
Incidental Intelligence: The cast also features Scott Brooks, Darrin French, Jacob Lacopo, Justin Ronald Mock, John Tilford, Sam Hay, Blaine Lehman, Jennifer Seifter, Anna Zaccari, Rachel LaPorte, Ashley Klinger, Heather Dore’ Johnson, Kelsey Andres, Mandy Modic, Tiffany Sparks and Lauren Patton.
The children of Rivercity are played by Caroline Adamson, Emily Althaus, Kyler Gueber, Maddie Keller, Orrin Keow, Evin Lehman, Kate Shanks, Zach Smith, David Thompson, Liberty Watson, Rachel Watson, Abigail Zaccari and A.J. Zaccari.
The show has scenic design by Jen Price-Fick, lighting design by Kimberly Klearman, costume design by Ryan Hanson and stage management by Jane Davis. The music director is Robert Jarosh.
Performances will run through July 29. Tickets may be purchased by calling The Little Theatre on the Square Box Office at (217)-728-7375 or online at www
FYI, the real “River City, Iowa” is Mason City, Iowa, the town where Willson lived as a boy (population 28,079, and declining).

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