By Pat Launer
An American classic, “The Music Man,” features small-town life and big-time singing
He knew all about the “Seventy-six Trombones” and the marching band. Composer/lyricist Meredith Willson , who grew up in Iowa, was actually a piccolo soloist for “the march king,” John Philip Sousa.
So his beloved American musical classic, “The Music Man,” pays tribute to his small-town past and big-time ambitions. ( Willson also tootled under the baton of acclaimed conductor Arturo Toscanini).
In 1957, when Willson’s debut show premiered, it won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ran for nearly 1400 performances. “The Music Man” has been produced many times in San Diego, but never as intimately as at Lamb’s Players Theatre, which has amassed a 26-member cast, backed by four musicians (who sound like a whole lot more) — their largest show to date, in celebration of the company’s 40th anniversary.
It’s a delightful production, with imaginative direction (Deborah Gilmour-Smyth), high-kicking, high-energy choreography (Colleen Kollar Smith) and a vocally outstanding ensemble. Most of the songs are beautiful ballads or great-fun sing-alongs: “Good Night, My Someone”; “Till there Was You”; “Marion the Librarian”; “Gary, Indiana,” and those fantastic barbershop quartets: “Good Night, Ladies” and “ Lida Rose.”
It all takes place 100 years ago, in River City, Iowa. When the train stops briefly, off strides Professor Harold Hill, conman extraordinaire, who’s selling the hidebound townsfolk a bill of goods about a marching band that will transform their community (he plans to take the instrument-and-uniform money and run). Turns out that, even without any knowledge of music whatsoever, Hill manages to change the rhythm of the whole town, defending the local ‘bad boy,’ bringing the battling school board together (in harmony!), rescuing poor little lisping Winthrop Paroo from his social anxiety, and wooing Winthrop’s sister, the high-minded librarian, Marion. Hill even gets snagged (and snogged) himself.
In a tip of the hat to Willson , the show opens with a piccolo playing “Seventy-six Trombones,” and the oomph and oom-pah never let up, under the sprightly guidance of Gilmour Smyth and ace musical director G. Scott Lacy, with new arrangements by keyboardist/conductor Taylor Peckham . The costumes (Jeanne Reith) are gorgeously color-coordinated, the sound (Patrick Duffy) is crisp, and the set (Mike Buckley), lighting (Nathan Peirson ) and projections (Michael McKeon) perfectly capture the period.
The center is a bit soft; as Hill, Rick D. Meads isn’t as hard-hitting or aggressive a salesman as one might hope for, but he’s an engaging performer. And Sandy Campbell, who’s played the straitlaced-but-surprising Marion before, seems to be straining her beautiful voice at times (especially in the show’s weakest number, “My White Knight”). All the secondary characters are terrific, both comically and vocally, from the bumbling Mayor (John Rosen) to the traveling salesmen and the killer quartet, to the over-the-top physical humor (Kerry Meads, Myra McWethy , Bryan Barbarin ), the delectable young kids and the superb dancers.
It all feels just right, not too syrupy or sentimental, not overly corny, the ideal balance of whimsy, comedy and heartfelt reality. Both play and production show what can come of a little imagination and a belief in the seemingly impossible.
“The Music Man” continues through July 24 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 4pm and Sunday at 2pm
Tickets ($28-62) are available at 619-437-6000 or www.lambsplayers.org