Oh, we got double
First of two Music Man productions premieres at High Street
By Jenny Lower 06/14/2012
Memorial Day is past, the Fourth of July shines on the horizon, the watermelons have ripened on the vine and the lifeguard towers are stationed on the beaches. It’s time to go see The Music Man.
Few plays evoke wholesome Americana as strongly as Meredith Willson’s tale of a smooth-talking Pied Piper who breezes into River City, Iowa, and convinces the townspeople they need a band to save their boys from the corruption posed by a new pool table. Two local theaters tackle the show this summer, with the first now playing at the Moorpark High Street Arts Center. It’s difficult to innovate a musical so beloved and oft-produced, but Ken Patton’s heartfelt production and energetic cast manage to create some surprising moments to delight the audience.
Jodi Wurts stars as Harold Hill, the bamboozling salesman who peddles instruments and band uniforms but can’t play a lick of music. Recently seen playing a similar role in Skyway Playhouse’s 110 in the Shade, Wurts performs capably here with style and panache, though he seems a bit daunted at times by the wordiness of songs like “Ya Got Trouble.” Heather Lease co-stars as the distrustful Marian, the town’s spinster librarian and piano teacher who plans to expose Harold — until she falls in love with him. Lease’s vocals shine in numbers like “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Will I Ever Tell You.”
High Street’s supporting cast does not disappoint, performing impressively in ensemble numbers like “Iowa Stubborn” and “Shipoopi” under Paul Duffy’s musical direction. Sophisticated, dynamic staging keeps the show moving at a pleasant clip. The cast make better singers than dancers, but Shea Taylor’s choreography deftly makes use of their strengths. John Eslick’s set design, complete with gas streetlamp and gazebo, offers a picturesque backdrop for River City.
Supporting standouts include Kelly Green as Marcellus, Harold’s former partner who’s gone halfway legitimate, and Dana Kolb as the mayor’s wife, the self-important Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. Both actors display a gift for physical comedy that enlivens every scene they grace. Joseph Ortega looks picture-perfect as Tommy, a high-spirited prankster from the wrong side of the tracks (if such a thing can be said to exist in River City, Iowa) who falls in love with the mayor’s oldest daughter. The Footloose veteran is also one of the cast’s strongest dancers. Pair him with an excellent Jessica Stone as the giggly Zaneeta Shinn, and the couple rivals the leads for chemistry and charm. Connor Green, Kelly’s son, makes a sweet Winthrop, Marian’s lisping younger brother whom Harold gradually brings out of his shell.
Perhaps most surprising are the professional-quality performances coaxed from the town’s improvised barbershop quartet, comprising Carzie Carter, Ryan Driscoll, Derek Foster and dance captain Chris Mahr. A running gag that allows Harold to forestall the demands for his papers, their spontaneous harmonies are pitch-perfect renditions of old standbys like “Lida Rose.” Impressive work indeed.
What explains the enduring appeal of The Music Man? Great songs surely, but Americans also love an ethical con man. In Harold we have a flawed man who owns his shortcomings and tries to be better. A swindler who gets taken. A man who falls in love not with a woman, but a whole town, and justifies its faith by rediscovering his own.
We could all do with an act of collective faith these days. The cast and crew at High Street, with their earnest, joyous production, have made a good start. You could wait until July to see the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center production, but then you’re liable to discover, as our maid Marian, that if “you pile up enough tomorrows, you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.”
The Music Man, through July 1 at High Street Arts Center, 45 E. High St., 529-8700, www.highstreetartscenter.com.