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The Perfect Play for an All-American Summer
By Bruce Levy
Editor's Note: This review originally ran in ShowBizRadio on July 1st.
The Music Man is as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and the 4th of July. Just mention it and there is almost a universal response of “I love that show…my favorite song is….” (even the Beatles recorded “Till There Was You.”) It is especially appropriate that Richmond, Virginia's Virginia Repertory Theatre chose to produce it right around the 4th of July, which is also when the musical takes place.
The only drawback to performing such a familiar is it is hard to make it innovative and original. However, there is something to be said for a comfortable musical. It can be just as comforting as hot dogs, apple pie…or chocolate!
With book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Wilson, The Music Man tells the story of the unlikely courtship between Marian the librarian (and piano teacher) in 1912 River City, Iowa, and a swindling travelling salesman going by the name of Harold Hill, who goes from town to town selling instruments and uniforms to form a boy’s band (with no intention of ever actually forming that band.)
Seeing Amanda Johnson as Marian is well worth the ticket price alone. With her gorgeous operatic soprano voice, I would gladly sit through just a 3 hour solo concert. I have to admit, I grew up with a crush on Shirley Jones, but Johnson actually outsings her! Her development of the character of Marian is excellent as well. She effortlessly takes Marian from a stiff and prudish old maid, to a warm-hearted and vibrant woman discovering love.
Larry Cook looks and sounds so similar to Robert Preston that he is a natural for the part of Hill. He displays warmth and charm with that underlying sense of dirty rotten scoundrel. He did have a tendency to overly bounce around the stage with high kicking legs that seemed more like Dick Van Dyke playing Tigger. It did; however, seem to help him bring more energy as the show moved along. At first I found his performance a bit too reserved and one-dimensional; but as the romance developed so did the energy and multi-dimensionality in his character.
Richard Koch as Hill’s cohort Marcellus Washburn was kind of a cross between Buddy Hackett and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz — the comedic yes man, yet with wonderful vocal and dance skills.
With such a large cast (37 people) it is hard to recognize everyone’s contributions, but there were several additional standouts. Joe Pabst and Debra Wagoner as Mayor Shinn and his wife Eulalie brought laughter each time they were on stage. Likewise the barbershop quartet/school board members (Keith McCoy, Kenneth Putnam, Jody Ashworth, and David Janeski) were pleasantly pitched and appropriately silly. I also enjoyed the warmth and heart Lauren Leinhaas-Cook brought to Marian’s mother, Mrs. Paroo.
But the crowd favorite was clearly ten-year old Brandon McKinney as Marian’s brother Winthrop. His vocals brought the loudest cheers from the crowd as he exuded perfect pitch and tone and great energy and likeability. Even his lisp was consistent and believable — not over the top.
Leslie Owens-Harrington’s choreography was lively and energetic, especially with the teen dancers in Marian the Librarian and Shipoopi. Sarah Grady’s costumes were bright and period appropriate. Brian C. Barker’s set used multi-level stairs and bridges to keep the show visually varied and impressive.
I am a bit leery to mention the one drawback for me, as I fear I will open a can of worms. I did have some general problems with some of the casting. I was a bit surprised in the use of women costumed as men in the train scene and girls costumed as boys in the band. While this works on a community theater level, I was surprised to see it in a more professional venue (and it really stuck out to me). If they could not cast sufficient numbers of men or boys, I would have preferred that they just reduce the number of bodies on stage for those scenes.
With that said, I definitely encourage you to go and see the “Trouble” in River City so you can catch the talent in the City of Richmond.