Take Note

The Music Man brings a town, and audience, to life.

I'm sitting at a small table at Boulder's Dinner Theatre with my friend Robin Haig. A one-time dancer with the Royal Ballet, Robin has just retired from the University of Colorado Dance Department and is talking about Margot Fonteyn and the Bumptious Colonial, a one-woman show she plans to take on the road. Elegant and graceful, with a laugh that somehow manages to be full-throated and tinkling at the same time, she enchants everyone she meets. Half her ex-students are dizzy in love with her. One of them, Lara Chamberlain, is performing in The Music Mantonight, and she stops by to embrace her teacher.

At Robin's retirement celebration a week earlier, she told wonderful stories about touring the Soviet Union with Fonteyn and about a testy pas de deux with Rudolf Nureyev. Everyone should dance, she said. If politicians did, the world would be so much better. "And I want you to know, I'm still wearing these," she added. She raised her leg -- impeccable extension, beautifully arched foot -- to reveal a high-heeled red shoe.

Tiny as she is -- one of the reasons she left the Royal Ballet, she comments tartly, is that she was tired of playing fairies -- Robin loves food. When she was an impoverished young dancer, she inveigled dates into taking her out for dinner and then, while they watched in disbelief, ate until her buttons popped. Now she orders a glass of shiraz -- appropriate, she tells the waiter (who happens to be BDT stalwart Wayne Kennedy), because she's an Aussie, like the wine -- and digs in to her beef stroganoff, pausing to pronounce it "quite nice." I'm working on the chicken cordon bleu. The sauce is a bit pasty, but the vegetables are crisp and the flavors fine. The food here isn't spectacular, but it's edible, which is more than you can say about the fare at most dinner theaters.

Brian Norber leads a merry band in The Music 
Man.
Brian Norber leads a merry band in The Music Man.

Artistic director Michael J. Duran has pulled out all the stops -- no pun intended -- for this production. In a program note, he explains that he was performing in The Music Manon Broadway the week of 9/11. Following the disaster, all of the city's theaters closed for two nights. When the musical reopened that Thursday, it was to an audience of fifty. But those people needed what the show had to offer, Duran says.

The Music Man is about Harold Hill, a huckster who comes into a small Iowa town and sells the townspeople on the idea of a boys' marching band, complete with music, instruments and uniforms. But before he can pull his usual disappearing act, Hill has fallen in love with Marian the librarian, and -- despite his inability to read a note of music -- has brought so much life and color to the town that its people love him. Brian Norber, who plays the lead role, is tall, lean and lithe, with a narrow, glinting profile -- "spivvy," says Robin -- and a wolfish grin. He brings huge jolts of energy to the show and is aided in this by a large, lively cast, a gaggle of charming children and a cheery seven-piece orchestra.

The Music Man features a number of performers who have worked with BDT over the years and carried off lead roles with gusto and elan. It's a pleasure to spot them in smaller but still key parts: the caustic A.K. Klimpke in the barbershop quartet; Scott Beyette playing Hill's old friend and fellow con, Marcellus Washburn; Joanie Brosseau-Beyette leading a quartet of wives in the hilarious "Pickalittle"; Kennedy Dunfee and Alicia Dunfee (who's also responsible for the swift, slick choreography) playing Mayor Shinn and his wife, Eulalie Mackecnie Shinn; and John Scott Clough as an almost-incoherent-with-rage rival salesman. The adorable Bryce Baldwin plays Marian's lisping young brother, Winthrop, and Jenny McPherson is poised and sweet and not overly cute as the piano student, Amaryllis. Marian is Teresa Cope, who's pretty and has a lovely soprano, though she's standard-issue ingenue in terms of acting.

The music is sharp, funny and sometimes meltingly lyrical. The show begins with a clever patter-song on a train as salesmen converge on River City. A lot of the songs have an innovative or infectiously rhythmic lead-up, like the child's one-finger piano playing that introduces "Goodnight My Someone." And then there's the smooth harmony of the barbershop songs, and the brassy humor of "Seventy-Six Trombones."

Every now and then, I sneak a glance at Robin. For her, watching is no passive act. I've seen her at the theater or the ballet, head high, hand to her throat, like Anne Bancroft attending Giselle in The Turning Point. Now, she has her chin between thumb and two fingers, completely absorbed.

I saw a traveling company present The Music Man at the Buell four years ago, but I prefer seeing it here. The action seems more real and the performers are closer, which means you can feel their electric enjoyment in what they're doing. The finale's a killer, with all the actors in band uniforms, marching and flourishing instruments, as Chamberlain executes a series of fouette turns in the front.

I don't know what inspired Duran to drop a huge American flag onto the stage at the very end -- perhaps his memory of 9/11, or maybe it was part of the Broadway revival's choreography -- but the gesture leaves me cold. Yes, The Music Manis an ode to small-town America during a time of illusory innocence, but I don't think it's about the synthetic patriotism we've been seeing so much lately. Robin is beaming and applauding -- "Such fun," she murmurs -- and as I watch her, the theme of the show seems clear: It's an assertion of the power of music and dance, of the kind of imagination that can bring an ossified town to life.

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