- Boston Theatre Critic
With showstopping dance numbers and a true ensemble overflowing with talent, Reagle Music Theatre’s production of “The Music Man” provides a spirited and heartfelt end to the theater’s 50th anniversary summer season.
“The Music Man” with book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson and story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey, tells the tale of “Professor” Harold Hill, a conman whose game is collecting money from unsuspecting small towns under the guise of starting a boys band. Hill is known among the other traveling salesmen in his territory for his success at this game, yet when he decides to try his con in River City, Iowa he is met with an entirely new set of obstacles, including most substantially the distrust of the town librarian, Marian Paroo. Yet, as Hill continues to work his magic on the citizens of River City and, subsequently, Miss. Paroo, the ideals of hope, happiness, and heart that he preaches turn out to be anything but fake, and when the time finally comes for him to face the music, Hill has to come to terms with the fact that maybe it’s his role as a crook rather than the band that’s been phony all along.
Reagle’s production, directed and choreographed by Susan M. Chebookjian, does a fabulous job of capturing the heart of this story while simultaneously providing a visually satisfying and all around entertaining piece of theater.
In a purely technical regard, Chebookjian’s show manages to create the world of River City right from the start, with the gorgeous compilation of costumes, lighting, and props. The most standout element of the bunch, however, is the beautiful and intricate set, designed by James Fouchard for Pittsburgh CLO. Whether the scene features a full sized train car, the interior of the town library, or a rustic footbridge by the water, the full-sized gorgeous set pieces, alongside beautifully scenic backdrops, establish a world that is so brimming with life audiences can’t help but get swept into the story.
Adding to the lively feeling established on stage is the incredible energy brought forth by the ensemble in this show. Made up of children, teens, and adults alike, it is clear from the first group number that the cast is completely in sync with one another, adding dynamics and relationships amongst themselves which, while maybe aren’t explored at the forefront of the story, manage to create a true feeling of community among the characters. And this concept is not one which Chebookjian has achieved by accident. In choosing to compile an ensemble of actors that include many siblings, parents and children, and friends, she has successfully replicated the reality of small town bonds and relationships among her cast, which further help establish River City itself as a living, breathing entity within the larger plot of the show.
With an ensemble so well developed, a lesser production may have run the risk of losing the audience’s attention to the main storyline in the show, however Mark Linehan as Harold Hill and Jennifer Ellis as Marian Paroo do a fabulous job of captivating the audiences’ attention from the moment they step on stage. As Hill, Linehan strikes a perfect balance between charming gentleman and slimy salesman, a difficult line to toe and yet one that is extremely important as the character’s relationship with Marian and the town begins to change, and the audience is let in on his softer side. Even with his conman status, Linehan’s suave persona and classic comedic timing have audiences hoping he’ll somehow manage to both pull off his scam and realize the error of his ways simultaneously.
Similarly, Ellis artfully layers her portrayal of Marian—an uptight, distrusting single woman—with powerful moments of sincerity, humor, and fragility that humanize the character and provide an anchor in a somewhat frivolous story to the core values of trust, love, and acceptance the musical explores. What’s more, Ellis creates a character the audience can’t help but invest in, with her unmatchable ability to sing gorgeous songs of love in one breath and then snap back into the dignified, more reserved demeanor the character uses in day to day life in the next.
Alongside Linehan’s Hill and Ellis’ Marian, are a very talented group of supporting characters. Daniel Forest Sullivan’s Marcellus is a constant source of energy and humor in the production, providing a perfect contrast to Hill’s sliminess with his goofy smile and bumbling physicality. Lori L’Italien’s Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn is also a standout among the town folk, taking command of every scene with her eccentricities, and providing a free spirited contrast to Harold “Jerry” Walker’s disgruntled Mayor Shinn. Marylee Fairbanks’ Mrs. Paroo and Jonathan Tillen’s Winthrop—Marian’s mother and younger brother, respectfully—are also able to develop a loving and believable family dynamic on stage. As only a rising 6th grader, Tillen particularly impresses with his strong commitment to character and adorable rendition of “Gary, Indiana” in the second act.
Yet the story of “The Music Man” is as musically-driven as it is character-driven, a factor which Chebookjian has incorporated into her production flawlessly. The dance numbers featured within the piece, led most often by Bernie Baldassaro (Tommy Djilas, Dance Captain) and Isabelle Miller (Zaneeta Shinn), are absolute show stoppers. Incorporating musical theater, ballet, and even some more acrobatic styles of dance, these moments of intensive choreography provide not only an uplifting, fun experience for the audience, but in turn are used to punctuate certain moments in the story in a way not much else could.
The first number of this kind is “Seventy Six Trombones,” in which Hill begins picking up momentum in selling his boys band to the members of River City. As the teens get more and more excited by this idea, the groups practically burst into dance, using their bodies as a way of expressing their mounting enthusiasm for Hill’s suggestion. In an altogether stylistically different dance number, “Marian The Librarian,” the same chorus of teens in the town are scattered throughout the library while Hill saunters around trying to seduce Marian with his smooth, enticing song. The dancers in this piece incorporate books, library tables, and more in their incredibly fluid movement, creating a whirlwind of motion that finally does, even briefly, allow Marian to get caught up in the moment.
Where shows like “A Chorus Line” and “Anything Goes”—the other two in Reagle’s 50th anniversary summer lineup—require this type of intensive dancing inherently, “The Music Man” is a show in which audiences may not expect to see lifts, jumps, cartwheels, and more. Yet Reagle’s production has proved once again the powerful impact a commitment to dance and movement can have on even a classic show like “The Music Man.” It is this success, alongside the outstanding talent in this cast, that sets this production apart, and continues to elevate Reagle’s reputation within the Boston community as a leader in professional theater.
“The Music Man” runs through August 12th at Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston. For tickets visit www.reaglemusictheatre.org or contact the Box Office at (781) 891-5600. Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston is located at 617 Lexington Street, Waltham MA.