The Music Man: buoyant songs, antique perspective

The Gateway Theatre is producing The Music Man.

Meghan Gardiner is both sensible and vulnerable as Marian Paroo in The Music Man.

It’s charming. It’s tightly produced. And it’s antique.

Weirdly, The Music Man endorses lying. In Meredith Willson and Frank Lacey’s story for this musical, a con man who calls himself Professor Harold Hill arrives in River City, Iowa with plans to sell the townsfolk the instruments, uniforms, and lessons that will allow them to form a children’s marching band. The scam is that Hill, who can’t play a note, will skip town without teaching the kids how to use their instruments.

Marian Paroo, the town librarian and music teacher, sees through Hill but, when he lures her traumatized little brother out of his shell, she starts to fall for him—and is lured out of her own prim shell in the process.

The statement seems to be about the power of fiction, of art, to transform lives. But, in making that statement, The Music Man conveniently overlooks the fact that Hill’s intention is to do financial injury to innocents, as he has done repeatedly in other towns. The musical sets out to make Marian’s appreciation of Harold’s flimflam look wise but, by today’s standards—mine anyway—that’s not exactly how it come across.

Musically, the song “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” is fantastically bright—playful and rhythmically complex. It’s also sexist. The joke is that the ladies of River City are petty gossips. This might have been hilarious in 1957, when The Music Man won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It is less so today.

Reservations notwithstanding, The Music Man is jam-packed with memorable, hummable songs, including “Ya Got Trouble”, “Seventy-Six Trombones”, and “Till There Was You”. Willson, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, declares his delight in rhythm in the opening number, “Rock Island”, in which the conversation among a group of travelling salesmen mimics the percussive progress of the steam train on which they’re traveling. When he combines songs, as he does with “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” and the traditional tune, “Goodnight, Ladies”, the rhythmic and melodic results are swoon inducing. And it would be hard to find a more touching musical line than the refrain in “Goodnight My Someone”, Marian’s song of loneliness.

On the whole, this Gateway Theatre production makes the most of the material. Under the musical direction of Christopher King, the ten-piece band is fantastic, crisp and clear from its first notes. And Tomasic allows us the luxury of overtures before both acts.

Gardiner’s singing as Marian is bell-like in its purity and her characterization is witty and touching. Chris Lam charms as Harold’s conspirator Marcellus Washburn, especially in the wacky dance number “Shipoopi”. Speaking of Harold, Jay Hindle is dashingly handsome in the role, and his movement is elegant, but he doesn’t have the big Broadway voice that the songs demand.

If you want to appreciate the crispness of Tomasic’s direction check out the scene change that sets up “Marian the Librarian”, which takes place, appropriately enough, in the library. Suzanne Ouellette’s choreography is at peak vaudevillian fun in “The Sadder but Wiser Girl”, a duet that Harold and Marcellus share. And Carmen Alatorre’s costumes are a treat; I’m thinking of the vanilla loveliness of the Greek sheaths that the ladies wear for a pretentious dance performance, and the candy striped blazers sported by a barbershop quartet.

As a vehicle, The Music Man isn’t perfect but, because the songs are so buoyant and because this semi-professional production is punching above its weight, you can have a really good time at this show. Just remember: like a lot of sweets, The Music Man is best tasted with a grain of salt.

THE MUSIC MAN Book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Story by Meredith Willson and Frank Lacey. Directed by Barbara Tomasic. A Gateway Theatre production at the Gateway Theatre on Friday, December 9. Continues until December 31.

Get tickets by phoning 604-270-1812 or at https://tickets.gatewaytheatre.com/TheatreManager/1/online?event=0

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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