by Roseann Cane
So here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: “Shipoopi” brought down the house.
More about that later.
The Music Man opened on Broadway in 1957, and went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Robert Preston), and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Barbara Cook).The smash hit went on to run for 1,375 performances. The original cast recording won Best Original Cast Recording at the first Grammy Awards in 1958, and was made into a hugely successful film in 1962.
Set in River City, Iowa, in the summer of 1912, the play tells the story of Harold Hill, a traveling con man who sets out to scam the residents by first stoking their fears that their youth will be susceptible to sordid vices of the time, suggesting that the temptation of the new pool table in the local billiard parlor will serve as a gateway to gambling, smoking, and other devilish habits, then convincing them that he can provide “a way to keep the young ones moral after school.” His solution: a boys’ band, where “Professor” Hill can teach them to play a variety of instruments via his original “think system.” The townspeople are convinced that Hill can save their children’s virtue, and they provide him with payments for instruments and band uniforms. Hill’s plan to leave town before the scheduled arrival of the uniforms is halted when he falls in love with the local librarian, Marian Paroo.
Morgan Green, the Sharon Playhouse’s current resident director, writes in her program note that her childhood love of the 1962 movie was her initial draw to direct the play, and that as she worked on the script, “…the show revealed itself as an exciting vehicle to look at America right now and our susceptibility to fear mongering and righteous rhetoric.” To that end, she supplies the members of her cast with familiar current accoutrements, such as cell phones and Starbucks-like disposable coffee cups. There’s a video camera and screen onstage, sometimes offering simulcasts and closeups of the actors; other times flashing key phrases or even a fantasy sequence for Marian the Librarian. Green’s conceit is a noble one, but the execution is not always graceful.
The Music Man is replete with 1912 slang, and hearing Harold Hill decry wayward teen-aged use of “swell” and “so’s your old man” amused audiences in the 1950s and ‘60s just as it would today’s audiences; each period brings with it more serious dangers in to which young people can succumb. But when you’re watching the on-stage teens sitting on bleachers and texting on their phones, the old slang becomes merely odd and out of place.
Green’s greatest accomplishment may be the winning cast she so wisely selected. As Professor Harold Hill, Robert M. Johanson is stunningly good. There are certain actors who are forever identified with certain roles, and Robert Preston, thanks to the widely seen film version, made Harold Hill his own. Johanson succeeds in the monumental task of creating his own Harold Hill. With seemingly endless energy, a lovely voice, and expert dancing, his cheeky, scheming con man is seamlessly transformed into a helpless, besotted lover before our eyes. As the object of his desire, Elizabeth Thomas (Marian Paroo) is a lithe beauty with a soaring crystalline voice, though I wished her Marian had a bit more sizzle.
As Marcellus Washburn, Harold Hill’s old friend who just happens to be living in River City, Larry Owens is sensational, a joy to watch. When he led the younger cast members in a raucous, unforgettably wild rendition of “Shipoopi,” it felt as if he swept the theater like a tidal wave. Kudos to Chris DeVita for outstanding choreography throughout.
The children, including Myles Crain as Marian’s young brother Winthrop and Katelin J. Lopes as Amaryllis, are adorable. Annie McNamara as Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn and Vin Knight as Mayor Shinn are hilarious, but really, the entire cast is top-drawer.
My reaction may be due in part to where I was seated, but I’m afraid there are some kinks to be worked out of Masha Tsimring’s lighting design. The abundance of lighting gimmicks is a distraction. I don’t understand why there were flashing Christmas lights during the overture, or why there were periodic flashes of light coming from the onstage bleachers. Green uses the center front row of seats for the cast in various scenes, which would be fine except for the lighting trained on them. I was sitting in a front-row aisle seat in the section below stage right (or on the left side of the theater if you’re facing the stage), under normal circumstances an excellent seat, and the stage lights presumably intended to light the seated cast were directly in my eyes. I would recommend that the theater not seat audience members in the first row of either side section, unless there is some way they can tweak the lighting.
In any case, I heartily recommend the Sharon Playhouse’s production of The Music Man. There’s a whole lot of talent on and behind that stage, the score is at turns hilarious and lovely, and it’s really fine, uplifting family entertainment.
The Music Man by Meredith Willson, directed by Morgan Green, runs August 4-20, 2017, at the Sharon Playhouse, 49 Amenia Road (Rt. 343) in Sharon CT. Musical Direction: Granville Mullings, Jr.; Choreography: Chris DeVita; Scenic Designer: Carolyn Mraz; Costume Designer: Alice Tavener; Lighting Designer: Masha Tsimring; Sound Designer: Brendan Aanes; Video/Projection Designer: Jessica Medenbach; Production Stage Manager: Olivia O’Brien.
CAST: Robert M. Johanson as Professor Harold Hill; Elizabeth Thomas as Marian Paroo; Larry Owens as Marcellus Washburn; Myles Crain as Winthrop Paroo; Katelin J. Lopes as Amaryllis; Annie McNamara as Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn; Vin Knight as Mayor George Shinn; Denise Michelle Johnson as Mrs. Paroo; Jesse Well as Tommy Djilas; Rachel Eddy as Zaneeta Shinn, Milo Cramer as Charlie Cowell; Becca Schneider as Constable Alma Hix: Lorelei Gnerre as Gracie Shinn; Ninoshka De Leon Gill as Maud Dunlop; Jennie Boone as Ethel Toffelmeier; Helen Laser as Ms. Squires. Barbershop Quartet: Matthew Krob as Ewart Dunlop; Robert Bannon as Oliver Hix; Daniel Walstad as Jacey Squires; Jacob Pressley as Olin Britt. Ensemble: Colin Gallaher, Tyler Gallaher, Susan Hackel, Ben Langhorst, Megan O’Callaghan.
The Box Office is open six days a week during the summerTuesday through Saturday: 2:00 PM – 6:00 PM and Sunday: 1:00 PM – 5:00 PM. Call the Box Office (860) 364-7469 (ext. 200 & 201) or visit www.sharonplayhouse.org