Usually, ‘The Music Man’ is a musical as huge and brassy as a marching band itself, so it seemed peculiar at first that such an elaborate play could be put on in much smaller proportions. Yet somehow, Bill Rauch’s understated UC Irvine workshop production of ‘The Music Man’ worked perfectly.
Real instruments adorned both sides of a plain white screen, which in turn covered the real band. Porches, living rooms, a city hall, and a footbridge helped transport the audience to the small town of River City, Iowa. A small cast of 18 played 26 different characters, and the costumes, cleverly designed by Shigeru Yaji, were nothing elaborate.
The story centers on Harold Hill (Jason Vande Brake), a traveling conman in the guise of a traveling band conductor. His trick is to go from town to town, selling unwitting townspeople band instruments and uniforms, then splitting as soon as he collects the money.
But Hill gets a lot more than he bargains for with the sensible town of River City, in which he must slip around the suspicious mayor, the bumbling school board and the priggish librarian, Marian Paroo, with whom he falls in love. By the end, Hill changes River City forever, and in return, River City changes him.
Rauch was particularly interested in the theme of transformation, which manifests itself in the text of the play, but also musically and especially visually. When Hill first arrives, his colorful outfit is nothing like the black, white and gray people surrounding him. As the play unfolds, the rest of the cast slowly becomes just as colorful and vibrant as Hill was when he interrupted their sleepy lives, and his colors, likewise, turn softer and less bold as he starts to question where his priorities lay.
Brake seems to channel a certain brand of comic energy and delivery reminiscent of Steve Martin and Phil Hartman, particularly in the difficult song, ‘Ya Got Trouble’ and ‘Seventy-Six Trombones.’ His energetic Harold Hill complements the unhappy citizens of River City fantastically.
Karen Jean Olds plays a spunkier Marian than most of the other portrayals I’ve seen, and while her acting is on par with Brake, her singing is stringent and unlike the songbird soprano voice that Marian is supposed to have. As one of the most notable soprano parts in musical theater, this was difficult to ignore, but when Olds wasn’t straining to hit the high notes, she was solid.
Jessica Reiner-Harris shone as both Mrs. Paroo, the lovable Irish mother of Marian, and Eulalie Shinn, the mayor’s wife and ringleader of the town gossips. Her timing was dead-on, and she made the two matrons into two distinct characters with a mere switch of accessories. Also notable in that respect was Garrett Mendez, who played Hill’s best friend and confidant Marcellus, and Hill’s worst enemy, Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman. The ability to play such contrasting characters often seconds apart is something which must be applauded.
The most notable part of this production was the lack of children. Typically, children comprise half the cast as the future marching band of River City. The only children cast were those absolutely necessary to the plot: the endearing but lisping Winthrop and the unremarkable Amaryllis. Again, Rauch somehow made this work, trimming down the bigger musical numbers and referring to the children of the town as plot points instead of actual characters.
The rest of the ensemble switched between playing the older members of the community and the idealistic youth. The former category includes the fantastic school board-turned-barbershop quartet and the gossiping ladies that surround the mayor’s wife, both groups more than comically and vocally proficient. Meanwhile, the musical numbers written for the latter category were also very well-performed, as in the jaunty ‘Marian the Librarian’ and ‘Shipoopi,’ the bright, showstopping dance number.
Rauch and his crew took advantage of the studio theater space by making three sections of seats for the audience, then having the actors perform in front of and in the audience. This staging was not only a refreshing change from the typical ‘diorama’ performance, but also made the audience members feel like they were actually in River City, watching the events unfold. The cast radiated a vibrant energy for the entirety of the two acts, something that was definitely reciprocated by the audience. It seemed that everyone left the theater humming.
Even for those who knew the territory, this production was definitely something fresh and new. Many people missed the chance to see this show, since the tickets for this past weekend had been sold out for weeks. Those who were fortunate enough to attend saw a classic musical in an innovative and well-designed production.