Musical Strains

Fond memories of the sound of Music Man fade away.

I wasn't in the best of moods when I took my seat in the Buell Theatre auditorium for The Music Man, but I was expecting to get jolted right out of my doldrums the minute the production started. I remembered Meredith Willson's songs as catchy and appealing. (I'm sure I wasn't the only person who walked in humming "76 Trombones"). And the plot, which features a con man who, despite himself, brings joy and music to River City, Iowa, seemed light, funny and, in its unabashed celebration of small-town America, uniquely suited to these troubled times. Besides, wasn't this the touring version of the celebrated Broadway revival of the 1957 hit, directed and choreographed by the ubiquitous -- and ubiquitously praised -- Susan Stroman?

Well, turns out that it isn't exactly. This Music Man is directed by Ray Roderick, though he follows Stroman's choreography. The sets, costumes and lighting are all new. Most importantly, producer Big League Theatricals decided to save money by going with an entirely non-Equity cast. This means Denver is paying Broadway-touring-show prices to see performers with no Broadway credits. Does it matter? Well, I admit the knowledge that I was watching a union-busting production added an unwanted tinge of irony to some of the jolly flag-waving on stage. But it also affected the quality of the cast, which is notably uneven.

Gerritt Vandermeer does very well as the charismatic Harold Hill, who, though he's unable to read a note of music, promises the townspeople a band and fleeces them for lessons, instruments and uniforms. Vandermeer has an amusing, elastic-limbed way of moving and a charming tenor. If he lacks some of the magnetism the role requires, I suspect it's because he's a very young actor: He could mature into genuine star quality. As Marian the Librarian, Carolann Sanita is not his match. She has a beautiful singing voice, but her acting is hard-edged and inexpressive. There's no spark between Marian Paroo and Harold Hill, and it's impossible to care whether or not their romance succeeds. Many key roles in Music Man, including those of Mayor Shinn, his daughter, Zaneeta, and Marian's mother, Mrs. Paroo, are performed by less-than-ready-for-prime-time players. Corey Elias, as the mayor's prissy wife, Eulalie, isn't called on to sing much. This is a shame because her voice, when it emerges, is rich and warm. She gives the part everything she's got, and her enjoyment is infectious. Ron Smith is also good as the villainous Charlie Cowell: He not only resembles John Cleese, but conveys something of his demented, manic, Fawlty manner, too. The four barbershoppers are another high point.

Gerritt Vandermeer struts his stuff in The Music Man.
Gerritt Vandermeer struts his stuff in The Music Man.

Details

Presented by Denver Center Attractions
Through August 18
Temple Buell Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex
14th and Curtis streets
303-893-4100

On some levels, the production values are strong, even if they differ from New York's. The sets are eye-pleasing, flexible and functional, and the costumes well-designed. The orchestra sounds solid and, though the acting is spotty, there's a fair amount of decent singing. The dancers are trained well; many clearly have ballet backgrounds. And some of the numbers -- for example, the very first song, in which a group of traveling salesmen mimic the rhythms of a railway car -- are inventive and amusing. Yet I was rarely engaged, and, at roughly three hours long, the performance seemed interminable.

I think the biggest problem was sound. The actors' authentic turn-of-the-century costumes were marred by entirely visible neck mikes. Sound levels were uneven. Harold Hill's smooth romantic crooning was answered by a Marian who seemed to be shrieking at the top of her voice. She was far too loud when she spoke, as well. And there was a hard, bright quality to almost everyone's words that distanced the audience and seemed to surround the performers with a suit of sonic armor.

The proceedings went on forever. The script should have been cut; at full length, its glaring, cliche-ridden deficiencies were more than obvious. It's so manipulative that it gives us not one but two cute children, presumably on the theory that some of us like our kid actors sunny, bouncy and Orphan Annie-ish, while others prefer them lisping and wistful. (Angela Deangelo is a real find as Amaryllis, nonetheless. She's a fearless and genuinely riveting presence. With the right teachers, she could become an astonishing actress; the wrong ones could edge her into too-cute brattiness.)

If the eurythmic dancing of Eulalie Shinn and her ladies was mildly amusing the first time around, that didn't mean it needed to be reprised later in the show. Numbers in which the rhythm and energy build to a crescendo are an honorable musical stock-in-trade. The first-act finale of the Arvada Center's recent Crazy for You, for example, left us wanting the singing and dancing to go on forever. But nothing in Music Man had that kind of impact. Even the numbers I enjoyed were sustained a hair too long; the rest felt like an eternity of jumping and grinning. There was something offensive and self-congratulatory about this, too, as if the powers that be were just assuming they had us in the requisite state of mindless bliss to carry on indefinitely. Even after the curtain call, the show wouldn't stop: The entire cast took to the stage in band uniforms and marched around in formation. Although the audience rose obediently to its collective feet -- as Denver audiences almost invariably do -- several people, including everyone in my row, seized the opportunity to leave.

The Music Man is a show about music and romance, but this production seemed to have no emotional resonance, only calculation. I've felt more enjoyment watching far less professional productions in local venues. While these are sometimes hokey, they're at least sincerely hokey.

 
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