For more than half a century the songs and characters that make up this delicate slice of midwestern pie have delighted us with a good celebration and a light poke of fun at Americana. For every jar of prize-winning pickles is a mayonnaise-and-banana sandwich; for every good turn from a neighbor is a keep-it-and-do-it-yourselfer. From its initial Broadway run in 1957 and sweeps at that season’s Tonys, to the charming 1962 film adaptation, to Matthew Broderick’s television revival a few years back, and the countless covers of the hits, The Music Man captures the spirit of small towns that dot our landscape.
There’s less cynicism and fable-making than in Oklahoma!, but the same pride in simplicity remains. It’s a good call for Clackamas Rep to put this on for its patrons: Oregon City is a bit like River City, Iowa, with its historic main street and feet on the edge of the Willamette. The seats on the night I attended were filled by families: grandparents, parents, and many children. The excitement in the air was the result of the rare occasion when an audience knows that a company is putting on a story for them that shines nostalgically on the roots of our yesteryear.
Playing the role of Harold Hill is a delicate juggling act. Robert Preston set a high bar with a sexy masculinity that somehow worked: even though Preston was supposed to be a handsome rake, the naked lines on his face made him look like he’d seen a few encounters with a switchblade. He was convincing as a con: we believed his Harold Hill and his chemistry with librarian Marian Paroo. To revive the role just as Preston did would be a strange imitation game, and most likely turn audiences away in laughter. Dave Sweeney takes some, but far from all, of his cues from Preston’s Hill: a devilish smile here and there, the absolute absence of affect when emotions run high, and the grifter’s power of hypnotism when explaining his “think system.”
Sweeney shines in the musical’s rhythmic songs The Sadder but Wiser Girl and Marian the Librarian. At the beginning of the Marian number, when he holds up the bag of marbles and describes each one in detail, down to the biggest one with an American flag, and how they’d excel at breaking the library’s silence in the beginning of the Marian number, it seems that Sweeney, like Hill, knows and appreciates the old kid’s game and also the more mature game of going after a girl. Lucky for us, Sweeney plays Hill with the composure of a man older than Marian who knows his way around the block. There’s no swinging his arms back and forth, as if he’s always ready to march down Main Street in his red plumed hat.
Kelly Lanzillo captures the essence of Marian, the librarian, nicely: she’s got the thick skin with a soft wishing heart that the librarian cultivates in her own con game. Her delicate soprano’s coloratura in Goodnight My Someone and Till There Was You swept the theater and focused straight on her performance, as if we’d fixed our eyes at a certain point in the night sky. Lanzillo conveys the bottled-up tension of a pretty girl who ignores being looked at. There is a magnetism between Sweeney have a magnetism, but they stick to a midwestern etiquette of keeping it private. Their budding relationship relies more on like finding like and insider knowledge that they’ve found at long last mutual understanding than the hope of a good passionate kiss.
Marian’s bereaving kid brother Wynthrop is played by Carter Christianson, who does a swell job of being the awkward shy boy who needs some prompting and attention to come out of his shell. He has the nervous twitch at the arms when forced to lisp out his s’s. Christianson’s Gary, Indiana had the adorable spark of a whippersnapper who’s put his foot in the door of confidence and bubbles over in pride at the chance of fitting in. He sings it like it’s the first time he’s been given chewing gum and that moment of excitement will have a splendid domino fall to come.
The River City kids ensemble pack a powerful punch of energy in their dance steps and sometime acrobatics across stage. Alia Cohn’s Amaryllis does some impressive backflips and cartwheels which make us wonder if she shouldn’t try out for the Olympics at some point.
By Christa McIntyre, August 13, 2016