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'Music Man' charms at Music Theatre

  • Kenny Ek/Special to the TIMES NEWS Lauren Curnow (Marian the Librarian), left, and David Masenheimer (Harold Hill), right, dance in "The Music Man," through July 3, Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre.
    Kenny Ek/Special to the TIMES NEWS Lauren Curnow (Marian the Librarian), left, and David Masenheimer (Harold Hill), right, dance in "The Music Man," through July 3, Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre.
Published June 27. 2011 05:02PM

"The Music Man," the legendary, award-winning iconic stage hit by Meredith Willson, has so many great songs that one can tend to overlook how funny and insightful an American musical it is.

"The Music Man" is about heartland America, with a cast of characters not unlike you and me. Well before Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone eccentrics on "A Prairie Home Companion," there were the good folk of River City, Iowa.

The key to this incisively witty show, a Tony Award-winning hit in 1957, with book, music and lyrics by Willson, based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey, is found in the lyrics to its some 27 songs (including reprises) in the Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT) production, through July 3, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, Muhlenberg College, Allentown.

"Rock Island," the opening song is a rap song before there were rap songs with its rapid-fire "Whadya talk" refrain, led by Charlie Cowell (a spot-on Neil Hever) with fellow train riders, singing and bouncing rhythmically to effect a railroad train chugging down the tracks. This sets the scene for the world of the traveling salesman, and introduces the show's main theme of insider versus outsider. None other than "Professor" Harold Hill (David Masenheimer) is on the train, listening in.

The musical doesn't waste any time showing us its wares. "Iowa Stubborn" pretty much says it all about the 2,012 residents of River City. The townspeople seem mighty proud of this trait since they're singing about it.

Harold Hill sets up shop with "Ya Got Trouble," a patter song to end all patter songs, which Masenheimer delivers with a smooth, almost breathless, run-on-sentence delivery that makes your head spin if you try to follow every word. How Masenheimer does this is beyond most mortals' comprehension, including this reviewer.

Hill soon has the prospective boys and girls in the marching band singing "Seventy-Six Trombones." If ever there was a paean to marching bands and John Philip Sousa, for that matter, without it being a John Philip Sousa tune, this is it. One cannot underestimate the powerful good feelings of this song, and Masenheimer makes sure we get it.

If Hill is the leader of the band, and Masenheimer the Pied Piper, then Marian the Librarian is the heart and soul of "The Music Man," the title notwithstanding. As rendered by Lauren Curnow, Marian is as reserved as the books in the town library.

Outwardly, she's hiding behind her walls of books. The characterization works especially well when Marian sings "Goodnight, My Someone," a duet with Amaryllis (Molly Schenkenberger, June 16), which reveals an inner life of dreams and passion, and lets her mind and heart wander and wonder in the world of the imagination, emotion and sentiment, not unlike what happens when one reads a good book. Curnow's operatic voice also soars on "My White Knight."

The novelty number, "Pickalittle Talk-a-Little," one of the oddest and most entertaining musical ensemble numbers ever, is paced by Eulalie Mackencknie Shinn (hilarious, as usual, JoAnn Wilchek Basist), who heads the River City hen house (Jennry Lerner, Jessie Macbeth, Molly Gervis, Meghan Tynan). Wilcheck Basist, by the way, steals most every scene she's in to the audience's great delight.

A rolling, five-note "dee, dee, dee, dee, dum" undergirds "Marian the Librarian," sung by Hill and Marian, which forever stereotyped library employees.

"Lida Rose," sung by the barbershop quartet (Zachary Shery, Daniel Greenfield, Josh Shapiro, John Wentworth), is interwoven with "Will I Ever Tell You," sung by Marian. Not only is this an extremely clever device, the interplay symbolizes Marian's conflict over falling for Hill. "Gary, Indiana" is sung nicely by Wintrop (Max Smith, June 16).

The medley effectively sets up the show's centerpiece, "'Till There Was You," which became a pop hit all on its own. Masenheimer's and Curnow's voices blend magnificently.

Outstanding in a featured role is Bill Mutimer as River City Mayor Shinn. Mutimer is a hoot and then some, as he frequently reminds his fellow town folk: "You watch your phraseology,"

MSMT Co-Founder and Artistic Director Charles Richter has captured the culture clash between the wild enthusiasm of a born salesman, wily in his worldly ways, and that of a sleepy small town that needs to be shaken from its lethargy. Richter strikes a balance between ballyhoo and bottom-line of the story, which is essentially that of capitalism set to music. Democratic ideals are celebrated when each learns a different tune, one of truth, justice and the Great American Songbook. Richter has fun with adding bits of business as, for example, when two characters mimic the farm couple's pose in Grant Wood's "American Gothic" painting.

Choreographer Karen Dearborn keeps the dancing brisk, especially during the "Shipoopi" number, led by Marcellus (Gabriel Martinez).

Conductor Donald Spieth puts the "band," i.e., the 12-member orchestra, through its paces, at times sounding like the musicians are ready to jump right out of the pit and march up and down the theater. Musical Director Ed Bara has drawn robust choral singing from the some 36-member cast, especially "The Wells Fargo Wagon" (the latter includes the logo colors for what is now the "newest" bank in town).

The play bill includes a clever River City, Iowa, July 4, 1912, Independence Day Festivities program, with the audience encouraged to sing along on the chorus of "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean." The song and the cast's overall exuberance gets everyone into the act, with play-goers clapping rhythmically, as is typically done by European audiences, when the actors take their bows.

Scenic designer Campbell Baird has created a set reminiscent of a Currier & Ives painting, with a border of what appears to be sheet music, magazine covers and other ephemera, and a backdrop scrim inspired by Amish quilts.

Costume designer Kevin Thacker fills the stage with characters in Victorian finery for the women, as well as bloomer-like costumes for the "Pickalittle Talk-A-Little" women, red and white candy-stripped jackets for the barbershop quartet and plaid jackets for the men, including Hill's mustard-colored outfit.

The MSMT production has a top-notch Broadway pedigree, from Lighting Designer John McKernon's concept, including, during the overture, footlights, with changing colors reflecting off of the Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre's diaphanous stage curtain, to the perfectly brilliant white band uniforms worn by the student marching band for the finale.

If MSMT's production of "The Music Man" doesn't tug at your heart strings, you might need some restringing.

Or, you may need to take up the trumpet.

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