When "Professor" Harold Hill of The Music Man arrives in River City, Iowa, he's ready to fleece the rubes on the Fourth of July. His character is thoroughly all-American — a brash quick study with a glib tongue, a most convincing con man. But underneath, he's a softie who peddles fair play and a straight-arrow attitude. For all his quackery, Hill trips up on love and lets himself be apprehended to face the music so he can get the girl. Of course, all this isn't just Americana writ large; it's American musical comedy at its best.
It's fitting that this classic show, a real one of a kind, arrived on Broadway without fanfare and then proceeded to sweep the major awards, overpowering even the monumental West Side Story, which had opened a few months earlier. The show's mastermind, Meredith Willson, was a household name for showbiz cognoscenti, but the composer/lyricist/book author surprised them all with such utter command in his first effort on a Broadway stage.
The show is Willson's celebration of his childhood memories of pre-World War I Iowa. It took him years to hone down the dozens of songs he wrote for the project, rearrange the plot and get a producer who'd back him. When The Music Man opened in 1957, the glorious pastiche of ragtime ("Sadder But Wiser Girl"), gospel ("Ya Got Trouble"), barbershop quartet ("Lida Rose"), military march ("Seventy-Six Trombones") and love ballad ("Till There Was You") wowed audiences with its simple but bracing tribute to gentler times.
The Music Man
Hobby Center, 800Bagby, 713-861-7045.
Through November 30. $26.25-$56.25.
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Willson was novice enough to fill the stage with novelty — in the opening number, "Rock Island," performed in rhythm to the steam locomotive carrying the traveling salesmen who "bicker, bicker, bicker" about credit replacing cash, and then turn their rap toward Harold Hill (John Gremillion) and his con man ways; in the complex patter song "Ya Got Trouble," in which Harold has to convince the stubborn Iowans that they need an uplifting boys' band instead of the demoralizing pool hall; and in the "Piano Lesson," with its simple counterpoint melody underscoring a contretemps between feisty outspoken Mama (Allison Sumrall) and her suppressed daughter, the town librarian, Marian (Catherine Taylor).
Then there's the Barbershop Quartet (Brad Scarborough, Corey Hartzog, Michael J. Ross, Luke Wrobel) that Hill creates out of the four squabbling schoolboard members, who then rhapsodize on events like a melodic Greek chorus, and the way that Marian's dreamy love song, "Goodnight, My Someone," is ratcheted up in tempo to transform into Hill's rousing "Seventy-Six Trombones," showing in musical shorthand before either of them knows it just how right they are for each other. Willson fills the show with neat little touches like this, smoothing our way into this quaint and forgotten world with its cracker barrels, canoodling and ice-cream socials.
Bracingly paced by director Phillip Duggins, Masquerade Theatre's production runs with this material without the slightest trace of getting winded, rewarding Willson with stirring voices and the most visually handsome production in memory. The resplendent drops and scrims by Hartzog, old-fashioned but so apt, add a crisp layer of storybook to the period set. Even the show curtain gleams with patriotic bunting and a bright medallion full of band instruments. Kayleen Clements's Wilsonian-era costumes sparkle with checked pants, hair ribbons, straw boaters and enough two-tone spats to outfit a band, and Laura Gray's inventive and lively choreography buoys the entire show.
The original show's lead, Robert Preston, made such a formidable impression in the role that each succeeding Harold Hill is judged, fairly or not, on how successful he is at making us forget Preston. Gremillion need not fear any specter — he's the consummate con man, dripping sincerity when he needs to and amping up the charm without missing a beat. He has a relaxed, sexy swagger and a showman's knack for the right gesture, while possessing a robust baritone that he smartly keeps in reserve until called for. He has us in his pocket from the moment he reveals himself behind the newspaper on the train, smirking and ready to conquer new suckers. No wonder Marian falls for the scoundrel. Taylor has a creamy, showstopping voice that sails through Marian's romantic ballads without a hitch, but she plays the virginal obstruction to Hill's come-on with such force, you'd think her psyche is about to crack. Lighten up, Marian, you've already fallen for him. This isn't Carousel, you know.