Review: "The Music Man" at the Stratford Festival

Joe Szekeres

  • Chief Toronto Theatre Critic

Admittedly, I’m probably the only person who has neither seen the Robert Preston/Shirley Jones film version nor the Matthew Broderick televised staging because I’ve never had any inkling to do so. I mean no disrespect to avid music theatre enthusiasts but, in my mind, this love story sounded corny. I’ve heard ’Seventy-six Trombones’ ‘Goodnight, Ladies’, ‘Ya Got Trouble’ and “Shipoopi” but never really understood their contexts.

Until now. I’m pleased I waited for my first time to see Stratford’s production.

(If you’ve never seen The Music Man, there are some spoiler alerts that follow.)

Passionately and lovingly directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, this Music Man put one big grin not only on my face but also on many around me. It is 1912, River City, Iowa. Con man Professor Harold Hill poses as a boys’ band organizer and leader to sell band instruments and uniforms to the town’s unsuspecting residents. Hill is no musician and plans to skip off with the money.  The town librarian, Marian Paroo, appears to be the only one who has a hunch something’s not right with Hill. Marian holds no hesitation and stands her ground in letting the liar know she doesn’t trust him.  By the end of the story all’s right, and the two central characters fall in love.

Classic Americana music theatre, indeed, yet the plot still sounds corny to me. Richard Ouzounian, Associate Director of the Festival from 1986-1989 and retired Toronto Star Theatre Critic wrote something in the Playbill that made me re-consider my view: “Music is the key to everyone’s heart and soul in this show.” How true, Mr. Ouzounian, as this music becomes a drawing card for an audience to lay bare its heart and soul. It cannot be a source of disappointment.

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No danger of this occurring here in this production since the orchestra and singers are in fine form courtesy of Music Director Franklin Brasz. What a class act to have him join the company for a bow and acknowledge the orchestra at the curtain call. There were some loving and poignant songs in ‘Till There Was You’ and ‘Goodnight, My Someone’. Great fun in watching the hen party and town gossips in ‘Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little’. High voltage company dance numbers electrify every corner and inch of the Festival stage beginning with the terrific train ‘rap’ at the top of the show. I’m not a fan of rap, yet boy oh boy the timing worked marvellously in this musical number. Two company numbers I waited to see with anticipation (“Ya Got Trouble’ and ‘Seventy-Six) placed that big grin on my face. Mrs. Feore’s ensemble dance numbers are jaw-droppingly spectacular in their combination of carefully choreographed acrobatic and gymnastic movements which were richly rewarded with thunderous audience applause and approval.

The pacing of the production is slick. It moves along nicely with nary a squeaky set piece or flat. A shout out of recognition to Dana Osborne for her gorgeous and colourful recreations of clothing styles from the turn of the twentieth century era. Her design of the horse costume for actors Eric Abel and Henry Firmston in the number ‘The Wells Fargo Wagon’ is quite clever as I thought it was a real horse for a split second.

 If I cannot make some connection to the characters, then it’s a challenge as to why I should care about them. Daren A. Herbert and Danielle Wade are accomplished triple threat performers who have the chops to sink their teeth into these iconic music theatre roles of Harold Hill and Marian; nevertheless, one minor quibble I have is needed development of sexual chemistry between the two in the first act. I was hoping it would finally begin with Hill’s pursuit in the number ‘Marian the Librarian’ but it lacked the punch for me. Hopefully, as performances continue, Mr. Herbert and Ms. Wade will be able to pinpoint moments where this tension can be developed further. Steve Ross as Mayor Shinn is bombastic and hilarious in his attempts to find the right words to use contextually in certain moments. Alexander Elliott is adorable as Winthrop Paroo in his attempt to make connections with others to help overcome his lisp. As Marian’s mother, Denise Oucharek is matronly and worldly in using her Irish wit and humour to underscore emotional moments. There is a tender and poignant scene in the second act where Ms. Oucharek, for a split second, tugged at my heartstrings where she showed how much she misses her deceased husband.

To see burgeoning youthful talent flourish on the Festival Stage gives me tremendous hope that Stratford will continue to be in solid hands of professional artists for the future. The Music Man offers a most enjoyable afternoon or evening of fine entertainment.

The Music Man continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, in Stratford until November 3, 2018.  Visit www.stratfordfestival.ca for further information or to purchase tickets online. You may also purchase tickets at 1-800-567-1600 or 1-519-273-1600.

Directed and Choreographed by Donna Feore.

Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann