5-Star Theatricals has upped the ante once again with a top-of-the-line production of Meredith Willson’s five-time Tony Award-winning “The Music Man,” now playing at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza (the Kavli Theatre) through October 27th.
For 5-Star Theatricals, it’s a homecoming of sorts given that “The Music Man” was the theatre company’s (formerly Cabrillo Theatre) first production 25 years ago. Led by its artistic director, Patrick Cassidy, 5-Star has re-energized the theatre scene in Ventura County and pulled out all the stops again by not only acquiring name value in Adam Pascal, as they similarly did with Broadway legend Susan Egan (“Beauty and the Beast”) and YouTube star Giselle Torres (“West Side Story”), but it has delivered a wonderfully endearing show that does this Golden Age musical a great justice. Boosted by its onstage and behind-the-scenes talent, 5-Star Theatricals’ “The Music Man” could easily stack up against any iteration or revival of the production.
For director Larry Raben, even though “The Music Man” is almost universally beloved, there still exists the challenge of making the 62-year-old attraction relatable to modern crowds. Granted, since the advent of the Internet, it would be less likely that a con man like “Professor” Harold Hill would get very far in his deceit, but Raben immersively stages Hill’s predisposition for duplicity in the “stubborn” town of River City, Iowa (population 2,212), while demonstrating that people can start anew, after all, by altering their pattern of behavior. It is this focus on the genuine capacity for change that continues to resonate today and always.
Furthermore, Peggy Hickey’s choreography shines in a spirited fashion, never losing its irresistible verve in fabulous ensemble-supported scenes like the rumbling, head-swaying “Rock Island” on the railway coach, the books-incorporated balletic sequences in the stupendous “Marian The Librarian,” and the exuberant partner dancing in “Shipoopi.” As musical director and conductor, Brad Ellis galvanizingly reproduces the rattling, carefree, and romantic intent behind Willson’s timeless compositions, as his orchestra adds a significant vibrancy to the aural experience. Contributing to the visuals are lighting designer Jared Sayeg and costume designer Tanya Apuya who ensure that the suits, dresses, and band uniforms look rich and sumptuous to the eyes.
Of course, part of the draw is the old-time charm of “The Music Man” – which sees the aforementioned Hill, a traveling salesman, immediately create a righteous need in a small town for his leadership and services as a band organizer, musician, and purveyor of instruments and uniforms. Being a smooth talker and a disarming singer who continually distracts from his lack of credentials, it isn’t until Hill meets Marian, a librarian and pianist, that he begins to rethink his hustling ways. Marian, too, begins to come around to Hill, who is difficult to dislike entirely given that his scheme has unintentionally positive effects, particularly for her speech-impedimented brother Winthrop. Despite being justifiably opposed by Mayor Shinn and a comparatively more honest salesman in Charlie Cowell, Hill proves to be more complex of a character than one might give him credit for at first glance.
Pascal, who was last regularly seen by Southern California audiences two years ago as rock-star Will Shakespeare in the national tour of “Something Rotten!”, is a huge get for 5-Star Theatricals. More importantly, he isn’t just shoehorned into the role of Harold Hill because he’s a star, but because he is a great fit for it. As he exhibited as Shakespeare, and conveys in a similar fashion as Hill, Pascal has a knack for playing the overconfident, seductive, and unprincipled lead who fascinatingly maintains his favor intact. Dapperly dressed in either fancy three-piece suits, or a red coat and a shako with a plume, Pascal’s Hill is the one charlatan attendees will be rooting for as he goes on an accelerated speak-singing sermon in “Trouble,” and avoids suspicion and skepticism with “Seventy-Six Trombones,” before falling for the reflection of his opposite – Marian – which is emphasized in the tender duet, “Till There Was You.”
Additionally, what’s interesting is that our changing opinion of Hill, who is initially a morally mixed bag at best, is facilitated by how Marian – played by the incredible Katherine McDonough – perceives him over time. The all-American next-door innocence that McDonough imbues her bespectacled character with is the spark that resets Hill’s fate. Marian is everything Hill is not – an actual musician and teacher, an upstanding citizen of her community, a classic romantic, and one who is virtuous in her intentions – so we don’t doubt that she would be inclined to rebuff Hill as her type in “My White Knight.” But when Hill’s guile inspires her withdrawn brother Winthrop (portrayed with great sympathy by Joshua Blond, who is also a terrific singer) with a love of music and binds the surrounding community with an enlivened togetherness, Marian is happy to be proven wrong. She spots the light flickering within Hill, which becomes a precursor to an improbable love. McDonough’s performance — highlighted by sensational acting and a gorgeous vibrato — makes the musical’s culmination all the more fulfilling.
Like the leads, the supporting cast members are proficient at persuading the audience to wholeheartedly accept the parable within the premise and become entranced for the duration of the two-and-a-half hours. Each character has a motivation that feels true, helping the story along. For instance, in addition to their comic intensity, Joe Hart’s Mayor Shinn and Rich Grosso’s Charlie Cowell are quite convincing in wanting to re-establish control and put a stop to Hill’s tomfoolery. They have a right to feel the way they do, just as Hill’s peer, Marcellus, believes he’s done with the business of subterfuge. And although, as the audience, we may have our doubts that he is reformed, Trent Mills’ charismatic portrayal of Marcellus keeps us invested as a reminder of Hill’s fraudulent tendencies.
Furthermore, Lisa Dyson makes for a sweet and well-intentioned, albeit sometimes meddlesome, Mrs. Paroo, who only wants the best for her daughter Marian. Savannah Fischer is mostly wholesome as Marian’s student, Amaryllis, despite going too far by teasing her crush, Winthrop. Then there is Adam Winer who plays the troubled-kid-turned-reclamation-project, Tommy, in a way that captivates and gets us involved in his journey via Hill’s tutelage – but not before the adolescent becomes involved with Zaneeta Shinn (a spunky Antonia Vivino), the mayor’s daughter, who dares to defy the image of her father’s good standing. As elite dancers, Winer and Vivino are a central part of the choreography and dazzle several times as a perfectly coordinated duo.
Finally, the school board barbershop quartet (Chris Hunter, James Thomas Miller, L. Michael Wells, and Jonathan Matthews) earns many smiles for its precise harmonies and showmanship in “Sincere” and “Lida Rose.” And on the ladies’ side, the gossiping “Pickalittle” clique, played by Anne Montavon, Dani Gonzalez, Dekontee Tucrkile, Samantha Wynn Greenstone, and Christie Lynn Lawrence, is a “fountain” of laughs. Lawrence, who is also the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie, is a riot as someone who is delusional about her performative qualities.
For all its band-marching spirit, enthusiastic pomp, and melodious panache, “The Music Man” really transcends more than just its sparkling visuals and equally gratifying jingles. The musical is even more than just a story about individuals of antithetical backgrounds finding romance, as it touches on how one’s environmental stimuli can impact one’s destiny. For especially Harold Hill, who was resigned to the life of a shyster, it isn’t until he meets Marian and the inhabitants of River City, Iowa, that he discovers a purpose within himself that he never knew he had. Very few people are all bad or all good; it is the complexities that make us who we are, and it sometimes requires patience and the power of forgiveness from others to maximize one’s potential. Suffice it to say, as a much-talked-about production, 5-Star Theatricals’ “The Music Man” realizes every bit of its promise.
Star Rating: ***** (out of 5)
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