From the minute the curtain went up, it was clear Asolo Repertory’s tap infused “The Music Man,” directed by Tony-nominated Jeff Calhoun, was going to be something special.
A group of salesmen on a jittery train introduce us to the tall tale of Professor Harold Hill, who is prone to skipping town once he has made his sale. The salesmen move up and down and sway a little until they reach a turn and then they gently lift their chairs and guide them around the bend simulating train travel all while singing at a spitfire pace about how their trade surpasses the mom and pop stores of yesteryear. This well lit and choreographed opening number is reflective of the percussive sound and movement that permeates the entire production.
When we finally meet the elusive Hill, played by legendary Broadway song and dance man Noah Racey, he swiftly taps his way into our hearts with a rakish grin and easy charm. Once Hill arrives in River City he reconnects with an old friend and business partner, Marcellus Washburn, played by scene-stealer Danny Gardner, who has gone respectable in this small Iowa town. The key to Hill’s success is his ability to stir up a problem that only he can solve (sounds familiar), and then he make loads of sales to his unwitting customers.
Washburn tells Hill the only thing remotely controversial to happen to River City of late has been the installation of a pool table. Hill manages to convince the local that the pool table is the first sign of sin and degradation for the young men in town and then reassures them that a marching band will keep them out of trouble.
How wholesome that Hill’s prefabricated scheme is to instill a desire for artistic expression! Racey as Hill manages to inspire townspeople and audience alike that the arts can help solve the world’s ills. And Calhoun pulls a neat little artistic maneuver reminding the audience that there are few disagreements that can’t be resolved when you throw singing and dancing into the mix. Try that at the next family get-together!
Hill gets the elder statesmen (Joseph Torello, Branch Woodman, Mel Johnson, Jr., and Jack Doyle) to form a mighty fine barbershop quartet – causing them to put aside their feuds in favor of sweet music. Then, he flatters the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie Shinn, a winning Matthew McGee in drag, so that she will lead the local gossiping ladies in movement tableaus to hilarious effect. Hill even straightens out town ne’er do well Tommy Djilas (Raynor Rubel) who is infatuated with the adorable Mayor’s daughter Zaneeta Shinn, played by Marie DiNorcia, in her Asolo debut, which is hopefully the beginning of a long association with this lovely actress. Rubel and DiNorcia lead an incredible group of dancers to transition from balletic moves to tap in a couple of amazing numbers – first quietly in the library and then in all out ebullience at the town gazebo.
Which leaves the finest performance of this re-imagined “The Music Man” turned in by Britney Coleman as librarian Marian Paroo. Coleman’s soaring operatic voice is a lovely complement to Racey’s more grounded sound always laced with taps from his fast-moving feet. Coleman knocks the classics, “Goodnight My Someone” and “Till There Was You” out of the park. She also exudes a calm presence and modern sensibility as portraying a young woman whose intelligence is underutilized in an early 20th century small town. When Coleman and Racey finally sing the duet reprise of “Till There Was You,” their voices harmonize beautifully; but their newfound love feels a bit unearned. This could easily be fixed with a few more stolen glances and physical heat between the two earlier in the show; because both Coleman and Racey both have charm and grace in spades.
Asolo Rep with the steady hand of Calhoun has breathed new life into “The Music Man” and brought this well-worn story of small town Americana into the modern era. Now playing through December 29th.