Stratford review: crowd-pleasing Music Man is irresistible

THE MUSIC MAN music, lyrics and book by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey (Stratford). At the Festival Theatre. In rep.

THE MUSIC MAN music, lyrics and book by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey (Stratford). At the Festival Theatre. In rep till November 3. $25-$142.31. See listing. Rating: NNNN

Ive always held a grudge against The Music Man, which took the Tony Award over West Side Story in 1957. The victory spoke volumes to the Broadway musicals low-brow ways in the 50s and its indifference to anything approaching social relevance.

But damned if the show high-energy, pleasure-filled wasnt the perfect way to follow up on the bomb scare at Stratfords official opening the night before. The patrons and donors were out in full force singing Oh Canada! particularly lustily in the wake of the previous nights disruption.

To be sure, there were more Black people in the cast than among the playgoers, and the virtually all-white crowd attests to the festivals continuing challenges with diversifying its audiences.

Daren A. Herbert as Harold Hill, the titular swindler who comes to River City pretending to start a boys marching band, is good but not spectacular. He seems tentative and short on charisma compared to Danielle Wade as Marian, who, though she exhibited some vocal problems opening night, is much more compelling. Youd think that would sink the production, but everything else about it is so strong that the show still powers along.

It opens with a spoken word number director Donna Feores attempt in interviews to sell it as rap doesnt quite grasp the cultural meaning of hip-hop which sets up Hills status as a flimflam man. Feore finds ingenious ways to choreograph it so you believe the players are on a train.

Soon Hill arrives and has the River City citizens in thrall, so much so that four bickering school board members are transformed into a brilliant barbershop quartet that cant resist breaking out into song. The grim townspeople are suddenly dancing up a storm, including the gossipy women led by the mayors wife (a wonderful Blythe Wilson, a great foil to the mayor, played with exquisite timing by Steve Ross) and Marians withdrawn little brother Winthrop, Alexander Elliott, who scores in the Gary, Indiana, number, comes out of his shell.

But Hill knows nothing about music, so the band itself looks like a non-starter, which is the source of the shows tension.

As for my crankiness regarding this musical, The Music Mans score still seems repetitive alright, Till There Was You is a great song and the production number Shipoopi remains pointless bordering on plain stupid. (In West Side Story, on the other hand, every essential plot point unfolds during musical numbers and none of that glorious music is wasted.)

But the other dance numbers have great exuberance. Seventy-Six Trombones got a standing ovation, something Ive never seen mid-show. The ensemble, including the kids and led by the brilliant dancer Devon Michael-Brown, has fantastic energy. And youll love the entrance of that famous Wells Fargo wagon. As usual, Stratfords production values are off the charts.

If this crabby critic found the piece irresistible, so will any musical-loving audience.

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