On paper, a story about a scheming con man doesn’t sound like a Broadway hit for the ages and for all ages. Yet The Music Man continues to be a beloved singing and dancing comedy, mainly due to Meredith Willson’s cheerful book and rousing songs.
Director/choreographer Ray Limon, is currently staging a production at Escondido’s Welk Resort Theatre. He finds a healthy balance between upbeat spectacle and a humorous look at 20th century Iowa.
The smooth talking criminal, Harold Hill (David S. Humphrey) visits River City in the hopes of selling instruments and uniforms for children. Harold promises to form a band with the kids. What very few people realize is that Harold plans on leaving immediately after he gets paid.
Both the open-minded librarian, Marian (Charlene Koepf Wilkinson) and the ultra-serious mayor George Shinn (Cliff Senior) are suspicious of the traveling “professor.” Everyone else, however, are won over by Harold’s salesmanship and charismatic presence.
Harold’s taking advantage of others may not be morally right, but the often-funny irony is that most citizens in River City aren’t perfect, either. Plenty of residents like George and his gossipy wife, Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn (Robin LaValley), are quick to judge townspeople and sometimes act superior to others.
That holier-than-thou attitude is evident when the company sings “Iowa Stubborn” as Harold explores the area. Everyone singing the song seems comically arrogant and uncompromising in their ways of living.
Adding a little bit of smugness are Jenny Wentworth’s costumes and Mike Buckley’s set. Their work gives the impression that the townsfolk want to shallowly impress everyone that they meet.
Despite the many flawed characters in the narrative, audiences can’t help themselves from caring about Harold and the other people that inhabit the town. Willson’s writing and the ensemble are the major reasons why the audience ends up developing surprising empathy for the characters.
Although Humphrey sells Harold’s quick-on-his-feet behavior when he sings “Trouble” and “Seventy-Six Trombones,” it doesn’t take long to realize that the swindler is far from heartless. Humphrey shows Harold’s sensitive side through moving conversations with Marian and Winthrop (Bobby Chiu, who plays Marian’s stuttering antisocial younger brother).
Not only does Wilkinson sing musical numbers like “Good Night my Someone” and “Will I Ever Tell You” with a sense of romantic yearning, she also understands how smart Marian is throughout the entire plot. She is the ideal actress to play off of Humphrey’s sharp portrayal of Harold.
Once Harold spends further time with Marian, the relationship between them becomes a crucial element of Willson’s script. In addition to the chemistry between Humphrey and Wilkinson, Jennifer Edwards’ evening lighting contributes to their romantic attraction, especially during “’Til There Was You.”
As the earned sentiment in The Music Man grows, there are still plenty of humorous moments and joyous numbers, courtesy of Willson, Limon, the leads and the 20 other performers. Under Limon’s direction, there are moments that feel similar to watching an improv show. Senior and LaValley, especially, play their parts in a loose style, and appear like they are creating Willson’s prose on the spot.
All the orchestrations in the San Diego County version of The Music Man are prerecorded. Luckily, the tracks under Justin Gray’s musical direction blend in seamlessly with the action thanks to Patrick Hoyny’s audio. Each note and lyric that Willson wrote can be heard clearly in the intimate venue.
There aren’t any inadequate dancers, although the ones who are given the heaviest movement from Limon are Kylie Molnar as George and Eulalie’s daughter, Zaneeta, and Sean Kiralla as her boyfriend, Tommy Djilas. Both of them dance with wild passion when they are onstage together.
Perhaps the highest compliment that can be said about Limon is that he turns a tale of old-fashioned innocence into one that doesn’t feel cliché for a second. His handling of the melodies, plot and jokes make every scene feel fresh and invigorating.
Almost 60-years-old, The Music Man is a true musical classic from beginning to end. It’s an experience that will wow kids and adults, just like Harold himself.