By JOHN DeMERS
“Although Broadway shows are not traditionally rated,” the website reassures, “TUTS has determined that The Music Man would be rated the movie equivalent of a G rating”
G rating indeed! Meredith Willson’s shimmering, tuneful classic from the depths of half-real, half-wished-for America might even deserve a G+. Yes, underneath what we see and hear, it’s also the story of a not-nice guy, certainly seldom an honest one, who comes to a small Iowa town perhaps a century ago, deadset on fleecing its parents with a fraudulent boys band and removing his only likely obstacle, the unmarried town music teacher, by hustling her into bed – as he boasts (in song) of doing in town after town. Music Man is a raunchy story, really. At least it would be if it had been written the least bit that way.
Though Willson (yes, with two l’s, please) supposedly was persona non grata around his own Iowa town for portraying the people there as stubborn, petty and ignorant, Theatre Under The Stars clearly embraces the musical as a glowing love letter to River City and smalltown America in general. Everyone we see is sparkling clean in word, deed, face and feet, with nobody looking poor or destitute. There is a new pool table debuting at the town billiard parlor, the first inkling of a modernity that reeks of smutty dime novels and cigarettes, at least for the local boys. The story puts this pool table to excellent use, as “Professor Harold Hill” (actually not Harold Hill, and definitely not any kind of music professor since “he don’t know one note from another”) creates the illusion that involving the boys in a marching band would be a wholesome alternative to lives of sin.
The cast pulled together by TUTS is impressive, even though in the lead roles they have to struggle with iconic original performances on Broadway and on film. Sara Jean Ford (with the operatic Christine in Phantom part of her resume) has no trouble speaking like Shelley Long and singing like Shirley Jones as Marian the music teacher and town librarian. The mountain to climb, though, is impossibly and unfairly high for J. Anthony Crane as Harold Hill. Following Robert Preston in this role is a bit like playing the King of Siam without being Yul Brynner or Zorba the Greek without being Anthony Quinn. It can and is done, but it never entirely wipes the memory clean. Crane sings Hill’s songs with care and occasional relish, from the “Trouble” that threatens River City to the show’s iconic “76 Trombones.” His open, natural acting style (a far cry from his last Houston appearance, as over-the-top evil Scar in a national tour of The Lion King) makes us believe that Hill, gradually falling for Marian, actually is the door-to-door salesman who gets “his foot caught in the door.”
The rest of the Music Man cast is a who’s-who of local talent: Kevin Cooney (who played Hill years ago for TUTS, now showing up as comic-bombastic Mayor Shinn), Paul Hope, Susan Shofner, Brooke Wilson, Holland Vavra – if you’ve loved their singing and dancing in other shows, they’re probably hidden away here somewhere. Plenty of talented youngsters fill out the ensemble, used with skill by director Bruce Lumpkin, including many who’ve come up through TUTS’ own Humphreys School.