Thursday, July 19, 2018

Striking the Right Notes: The Music Man Plays Stratford

Daren A. Herbert as Professor Harold Hill in Stratford's The Music Man. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Donna Feore’s jaunty new production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man (at Stratford’s Festival Theatre until Nov. 3) skirts the evangelical in telling the story of a salesman so good he sells a small town on the promise of a boy’s band without sounding a note to vouch for his musical credentials. Harold Hill, played by a supercharged Daren A. Herbert, making his Stratford debut, turns his sales pitch into a fiery sermon of shame that easily cows the residents of River City, Iowa, into buying his idea that music will be their salvation.

In the raucously sanctimonious song "Ya Got Trouble," Hill paints a frightening picture of moral corruption should the town’s youth have only the newly-built pool hall to rely on as entertainment. His holy-roller delivery hits the mark, making converts of them all save for a couple of holdouts – Mayor Shinn (Steve Ross), who lacks the necessary imagination to see what is not already there, and Marion the Librarian, whose reading of Balzac (as the town gossips shockingly observe) has taught her a thing or two about real life and the swindlers who come to inhabit it. She’s nobody’s fool.

Danielle Wade, also making her Stratford debut, wraps Marion Paroo in steel to make her immune to Hill’s flamboyant charms. As opposites in a romantic comedy, these two main characters continually rub against each other: she is cautious and prim where he is risky and pleasure-seeking. Hill must sell her on him and this becomes his bigger challenge. He succeeds, mainly because Marion, who doubles as the town’s music teacher, ultimately has the flexibility of mind to understand that his deception (which she gets from the start) brings about changes that tangibly improve lives.

Herbert with Danielle Wade as Marion Paroo. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Hill’s promise of transcendence through music transforms Marion’s socially awkward younger brother, Winthrop Paroo (Alexander Elliot), into a more receptive and joyous child; it also softens the rebellious spirit of the young gang leader Tommy Djilas (played by the dynamic dancer Devon Michael Brown) who, in the musical’s opening scenes, is threatened with reform school for running with the Mayor’s daughter, Zaneeta Shinn (Heather Kosik, another lead dancer). Tommy also gets blacklisted for talking back to his elders. The period is 1912, a relatively innocent time when manners still mattered. Hill helps keep the peace. He preaches the way to greater harmony.

As the program notes spell out, Hill is the Pied Piper in reverse – leading children (and others) back into the communal fold. Hill is also, to reference another archetype, a trickster, a mythological figure who uses guile to overthrow repression. And you don’t have to be a bookish librarian to see that. Still, there is something a tad hasty about Marion falling for Hill after rebuffing him so assiduously. Something doesn’t quite sit right.

To make the transition from ice to fire feel more believable, Feore, as director, needed to get Wade to show some chinks in her armour earlier in the play for her radical change of heart to seem true. In the scenes with her mother, Mrs. Paroo (a finely comedic Denise Oucharek), Marion is harsh and unyielding; with Amaryllis Dunlop (Sarah DaSilva), the little girl she tutors in piano, she is entirely lacking in warmth. Sparks don’t fly either when she meets Hill for the first time; the chemistry just isn’t there. The attraction feels more intellectual than sensual, making their final union feel less like a cymbal crash, more like a tinkling of hand bells. It’s the only criticism to level at a production that otherwise strikes all the right notes.

George Krissa, Robert Markus, Sayer Roberts, and Marcus Nance. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Feore opens her show with a moving train scene that sets in motion the quick-paced comedic action which follows that follows. Effervescence flows from the details. The Music Man is a spectacular pleasure, a truly happy show. Feore’s acrobatic choreography – exuberantly danced by a spitfire crew of aerodynamic dancers – thoroughly energizes, while Dana Osborne’s colourful period costume designs, ranging from star-spangled Fourth of July pinafores to zingy marching band uniforms, consistently thrill. The pacing is quick and assured. The laughs infectious.

Adding oomph to the parade-like atmosphere is music director Franklin Brasz’s spirited conducting of Willson’s 1957 score, whose hummable hits include the musical’s signature song, "Seventy-Six Trombones", and "Till There Was You," a ballad so tuneful even The Beatles have covered it. The singing throughout is likewise fab. Standouts include George Krissa as Ewart Dunlop, Robert Markus as Jacey Squires, Sayer Roberts as Oliver Hix and Marcus Nance as Olin Britt. They perform together as a barbershop quartet, braiding their voices silkily together, and drawing everyone – without resistance – into the musical weave.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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