If youâre looking for a night of entertainment to take your mind off any contemporary troubles with a capital T â say, an unsettling bomb threat against a Shakespearean theatre company â march on over to The Music Man at the Stratford Festival.
Director and choreographer Donna Feoreâs production of Meredith Willsonâs musical set in 1912 Iowa had the audience on its feet before the first act had even finished, when a corps of 10 dancers playing River City teens delivered a highly athletic, amped-up routine to accompany Seventy-Six Trombones in front of Daren A. Herbertâs suave Professor Harold Hill.
I havenât seen a show-stopping standing O in Stratfordâs Festival Theatre since, well, Feoreâs production of Fiddler on the Roof, also at the end of a highly athletic, amped-up dance routine. Why mess with success?
It is true the crowd at opening night of The Music Man on Tuesday was very eager to have a good time just one day after what should have been the season opening performance, The Tempest starring 80-year-old Stratford legend Martha Henry as Prospero, was cancelled on the same famous thrust stage when local police received a vague threat against the festival.
Even the pre-show singing of the national anthem ended in cheers from a crowd that had passed a low-key police presence and purse checks by private security on their way into the Festival Theatre to see what may be the most anodyne American musical of all time.
The strongest aspect of Feoreâs production is Danielle Wadeâs performance as Marian Paroo, the librarian who quickly realizes that the travelling band-equipment salesman Harold Hill is a con artist, but comes to love him anyway as she observes the positive effects of his enthusiasm for art on the small-minded population of 1912 River City, Iowa.
Wade, who won CBCâs Over the Rainbow reality-TV competition to star in The Wizard of Oz in Toronto in 2012, has developed some serious stage presence in the ensuing years. Sheâs equal parts fierce and sweet as a woman deemed an âold maidâ at 26 standing up proudly in the face of gossip about her sex life and her advocacy for what locals have deemed âdirty booksâ (by Chaucer, Rabelais and Balzac).
Feoreâs production likewise shines new light on the subplot involving Eulalie Shinn â a very funny and surprisingly powerful Blythe Wilson â slowly but surely standing up to her husband, Mayor Shinn (the always-wonderful Steve Ross).
This is a trademark of the directorâs work at Stratford â subtly reinvigorating the female leads in classic musicals and giving heft to their emotional journeys. So too is her deft hand with child actors, in this case Alexander Elliot as Winthrop Paroo, Marianâs lisping younger brother; and Sarah DaSilva as the girl next door, Amaryllis. A scene between these two kids is the most complex in the show.
But unlike Feoreâs smart take on The Sound of Music a few years ago â which made a solid case that it is the greatest Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, not merely the most popular â thereâs not as much complexity to find in The Music Man.
You canât make too sophisticated the gender politics of a show in which the big dance number in the second act, Shipoopi, is to a song in praise of women who wait to kiss until the third date. (Harold Hillâs follow-up song, The Sadder-but-Wiser Girl For Me, isnât much of a rebuttal.)
Itâs always a bit strange to remember that Willsonâs nostalgic musical arrived on Broadway in the same season as West Side Story. Best to view it simply as fantasy â especially in an essentially colour-blind production such as this one that could otherwise be seen as serious American historical revisionism.
The Music Man is a triumph of musical-comedy craft, certainly, from the opening number Rock Island, ârappedâ by salesmen on a train to River City, to the brilliant way Marianâs Goodnight My Someone and Haroldâs Seventy-Six Trombones give us a heroine and hero singing the same tune, just needing their tempos and time signatures to sync up to realize it.
As for Herbertâs Hill, I was impressed by the salesmanship in his patter songs, the fresh and funny gospel howls he brought to Ya Got Trouble and the groovy curlicues in his choreography that suggest the professor may have run into the ancestors of the Jackson family when he was studying in Gary, Ind. (A few months after The Music Man won the Tony for Best Musical in 1958, Michael Jackson was born in Gary.)
But Herbert sometimes seemed to be playing more to the offstage audience than connecting with the other characters onstage.
As usual, Feoreâs energetic choreography is a major draw â but it doesnât always feel entirely integrated here.â The Seventy-Six Trombones number â featuring high jumps, dizzying spins, back flips â was definitely thrilling to watch, but felt more like something out of Bring It On than The Music Man. If the teens in this town are already this liberated, what exactly has Hill brought to River City?
The Music Man (stratfordfestival.com) continues to Nov. 3.