There may be trouble in River City, but its resolution—76 trombones and all—is as flat as an Iowa vowel.
The University of Arizona's Arizona Repertory Theatre is having a go at Meredith Willson's likable, enduring The Music Man, and while the production includes many pleasant elements, the result isn't nearly as rousing as it should be.
As you may recall, the trouble in early-20th-century River City, Iowa, is the town's new pool table and its potentially pernicious influence on the morals of the community's youngsters. Or so claims one Harold Hill, a traveling salesman who happens to know exactly how to fight this insidious menace: Form a youth band, complete with instruments, instruction books and uniforms that Hill will be happy to sell the townsfolk.
Now, this may be a small town, but its residents aren't all rubes. After all, this is Iowa, which the show depicts as not exactly the most welcoming place; indeed, incivility and boredom, if not genetically ingrained, are at least environmentally imposed. The townsfolk are suspicious of Hill, yet they can't help being seduced a little by his claims that their kids show every sign of having rare, natural talent.
Hill, on the other hand, can't tell a quarter note from a quarter horse, and his business model involves moving on quickly to the next town once he's collected on his sales, but before he actually has to train the band.
Hill's main opposition comes from the mayor, who happens to own the parlor in which that new pool table has been installed, and the smart, suspicious, musically savvy local librarian, Marian. Naturally, this being a musical, romantic tension quickly arises between the two antagonists.
Well, it's supposed to, but in this UA production directed by Andrew F. Holtz, there just aren't many sparks between Patrick Roberts' Harold Hill and Jocelyn Pickett's Marian Paroo. Individually, they're good performers, especially in the vocal department—particularly Pickett, who has a fine voice and understands, among other things, how to control and restrain her vibrato. Roberts does a good job with Hill's patter songs, which, in their way, are as challenging as sung material.
To his credit, Roberts doesn't try to impersonate Robert Preston, who still owns this role even though he's been dead for more than 20 years. If anything, Roberts more resembles a young Richard Widmark, but without the undercurrent of menace. And therein lies a problem: Roberts' Harold Hill is a smooth, fast talker, but he doesn't seem sufficiently sly or cynical. Face it: Harold Hill isn't merely a traveling salesman; he's one step away from being a con man, yet here, he's just a sunny manipulator, without a single shadow to his character.
The other members of the large cast acquit themselves pretty well, though with varying degrees of investment in their roles. Among the better participants are Celia Madeoy as Marian's not-quite-overbearing Irish mother, and Laura Weiner as the mayor's wife, a person who will apparently grow up to become Margaret Dumont. And the children are pretty adorable; two of them—Daria Berg and James Cockrell—can pretty much hold their own as actors against the UA undergrads.
Less agreeable is the fact that Mickey Nugent's appealing dance numbers look cramped on the circular dais occupying a relatively small portion of the stage. It isn't that Clare P. Rowe's streetscape set hogs space; the black-box Tornabene Theatre simply seems too small for this show, and the big ensemble moments, especially the finale, aren't the blast they could be. It's as if somebody muted each of those 76 trombones.
The orchestration has been scaled down to just a handful of acoustic instruments and synthesizers; whether the arrangement is the work of director Holtz (who was responsible for the unsatisfying electronic arrangement used in the UA's Side Show) or music supervisor Monte Ralstin, it works well, emphasizing the score's pre-ragtime character. (Composer Willson was, of course, a post-ragtime musician on a nostalgia trip.) The playing was spotty on opening night, but the job got done.
Getting the job done describes most aspects of this production, which never descends below a certain agreeable level of skill—but seldom fully rises to the occasion.