Theatre Tulsa is doing an old-fashioned thing – namely, the “The Music Man” – in an old-fashioned way.
The company’s production of this creation by Meredith Willson, which opened Friday at the Tulsa PAC, takes no revisionist approach to the material, no modernizing of the music, no knowing winks to the audience about the artifice of the whole enterprise.
Rather, it presents it for what it is – a classic musical comedy of the mid-20th century, filled with memorable songs, light comedy and chaste romance.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially when it comes to “The Music Man,” which is one of the most perfect examples of the form in the history of the American theater.
The story, set in early 1900s Iowa and inspired by Willson’s childhood, positively glows with nostalgia, and there is hardly a tune in the score that has not become a standard – even the Beatles covered “Till There Was You” – or at the very least takes only a single hearing to become embedded in one’s memory.
Theatre Tulsa’s production hits all the necessary marks with a good deal of accuracy. The multi-generational cast, which includes about a dozen youngsters from the company’s youth theater programs, performs with energy and enthusiasm.
While clarity of lyrics was a bit of a problem in some of the ensemble numbers on opening night, the singing by all and sundry was of good quality. The humor is there, although at times the pacing of some scenes undermined the lines designed to produce the laughs.
But it all served the show’s primary purpose of sending the crowd home with a smile on its collective face and several tunes rattling around its collective head.
In case there are those who know little or nothing about this show, “The Music Man” of the title is a con artist going by the moniker Professor Harold Hill (Mark Frie), who has been traveling the Midwest and fleecing the populace of various hamlets with the prospect of outfitting the town’s youngsters with all the instruments, uniforms and instruction booklets necessary to create the sort of concert band that was all the rage around the turn of the 20th century.
Hill’s latest target is the town of River City, Iowa, where by chance he meets a former colleague in criminality, Marcellus (Nicholas Winterrowd), who tries to discourage Hill find another town to tap. For one thing, Iowans are notoriously stubborn – the sort of people who can stand nose to nose and still not see eye to eye.
And, for another reason, the town’s librarian, Marian Paroo (Margaret Stall), is also a music teacher, who will see through Hill’s musical scam in minutes.
But Hill likes a challenge, and it doesn’t take him long to stir up the crowd’s outrage by extolling the virtues of band music over the degradations of playing pool and reading Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang.
The town’s mayor (Samuel Jeremy Stevens) isn’t convinced, and deputizes members of the town to seek out Hill’s bona fides, while Hill attempts to woo Marian the librarian into his scheme.
Frie, who has excelled at more dramatic roles such as Jean Valjean and Sweeney Todd in past Theatre Tulsa productions, presents Harold Hill more as someone who gets his way through dogged persistence, rather than snappy patter and oily charm – a bulldozer instead of a “spellbinder.”
He does well in the rapid-fire “Trouble,” and sells “Seventy-Six Trombones” with gusto, but his Harold Hill still comes off as someone who is good at his job, rather than someone who really loves his work.
Stall, on the other, is very good as Marian, revealing the romantic longing behind the librarian’s no-nonsense façade in “Goodnight My Someone,” “My White Knight” and “Will I Ever Tell You.”
Stevens invest the mayor’s lines with all the requisite bellicose bluster, Megan Digregorio is suitably flighty as his artistically inclined wife Eulalie, Cody McCoy and Tatum Nelson are an energetic pair as Tommy and Zaneeta, Liz Masters gets her Irish up as Mrs. Paroo, and Davis White is very good as the shy Winthrop, who only needs a shiny cornet to come out of his shell.
For the barbershop quartet of city fathers, the company has reunited four performers from its long-running production of “Forever Plaid,” which played for 10 years and more than 400 shows. The tight harmonies of Justin Boyd, Tracy Watson, Mike Pryor and Mark Powell were one of the highlights of the show.
The show’s direction, choreography and musical direction is credited to a “creative team” of Frie, Stevens, Pete Brennan and Jen Alden, but I have the sense that the choreography of the large production numbers – “Seventy-six Trombones” and “Shipoopi” – is Alden’s work, and that Stevens is primarily responsible for the quality of the ensemble singing.
Alan Schwanke designed the sparse, but evocative sets that Deanna Byford illuminated well. Grant Goodner designed the sound, and Mandy Gross and Lisa Hunter oversaw the costumes.
“The Music Man” continues with performances through Jan. 26 at the Tulsa PAC, 110 E. Second St. For tickets: 918-596-7111, tulsapac.com.