Los Angeles Theater Preview: THE MUSIC MAN (5-Star Theatricals in Thousand Oaks)

by Frank Arthur on October 9, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles

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When 5-Star Theatricals announced their production of The Music Man, which opens next week in Thousand Oaks, I actually got excited. I never tire of seeing this charming musical, and it occurred to me that I haven’t seen it since 2001, when Will & Grace’s Eric McCormack took over for Craig Bierko in Susan Stroman’s Broadway revival. Now, Tony-nominee Adam Pascal (Broadway’s original “Roger” in Rent), who has continually surprised me at both intimate cabarets and Broadway shows (most recently Something Rotten), hits the boards to play con man Harold Hill, who promises a boys’ band to counteract the possibility of a pool table coming to River City, Iowa in 1912. His hornswoggling will change the town in ways he could never have imagined. Katharine McDonough, who was amazing as the sexpot vaudevillian Evelyn Nesbit in Pasadena Playhouse’s revival of Ragtime, turns a 180 to play the proper town librarian Marian Paroo, who isn’t fooled by Hill’s convincing doublespeak. In addition, 5-Star consistently offers Broadway-caliber production values — and here they have director Larry Raben, musical director Brad Ellis, and choreographer Peggy Hickey — so a sight-unseen recommendation is in order well ahead of time, as the run is very short (October 18-27, 2019).

Before you head off to see it, a little Broadway lore is in order.

When The Music Man opened on a chilly December night at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre in 1957, nobody suspected that Meredith Willson, a minor composer of the airwaves who had been a flutist for John Philip Sousa in the early 1920s, would present one of the top musicals of all time. Nobody, that is, except the inimitable Frank Loesser, scoremaker for The Most Happy Fella, which uncannily closed just five days before Willson’s valentine to his Iowan boyhood opened.

The idea for the musical was triggered by Willson’s book of youthful remembrances, And There I Stood with My Piccolo (1948). Encouraged by his pal Loesser to musicalize it, Willson had the project optioned by producers Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin in 1951, the same year they presented Loesser’s Guys and Dolls. The red-hot team would go on to produce Loesser’s How to Succeed… four years after The Music Man, but they lost faith in Willson’s libretto, which at that point included the character of a spastic child (who would eventually be replaced by the lisping character, Winthrop). They dropped their option in ’55, leaving Loesser to urge the erstwhile film composer Willson (Oscar-nominated in 1940 for Best Score of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) to continue working on the show. Willson wrote the book, music, and lyrics, and it took seven years to complete.

Under the guise of Frank Productions, Inc., the composer/lyricist of Where’s Charley? (1949, also presented by Feuer & Martin) stayed on board as associate producer, publisher, and licensor of the hugely money-spinning stock and amateur rights. This is why you see “Frank Music Corp.” and “Frank Distributing Corp.” on all the sheet music. (An unsubstantiated rumor has it that Loesser wrote the gorgeous ballad “My White Knight,” and that Willson based “Sadder but Wiser Girl” on that, much in the same way that “Goodnight, My Someone” is a slowed-down version of “Seventy-Six Trombones,” but Willson denied it — there’s enough in that story for an entire article.)

Regardless, The Music Man wowed patrons and critics alike, and completely took the wind out of West Side Story, which opened three months earlier at the Winter Garden. It may have been true that WSS was too advanced for a 1957 audience, but TMM became the golden boy of Broadway, beating out the gang tuner for the Best Musical Tony Award, which included librettist and composer (award for Book and Score did not exist that year). That may seem odd to some who see TMM as corn-filled silliness, but rest assured it has elements that, at the time, were just as untried and ingenious as WSS: One opened with a balletic gang fight, the other with 14 salesmen discussing their trade, but their dialogue is rhythmically reflecting the motion of the train they are riding without a note from the orchestra. One musical is not better than the other; they are just vastly different in tone. In a way, the two shows were symbols of an emerging era in which social issues collided with old-fashioned values. It’s also telling that both shows remain popular at regional theaters (5-Star Theatricals just revived an astounding version of West Side Story) as issues and values continue to be debated — a debate that looks unstoppable. Fortunately, 5-Star patrons will be able to compare the two shows which played just down the street from each other in 1957. Now it’s time to ride the rails to Thousand Oaks to see a musical the likes of which we haven’t seen since Ike was in office.

The cast includes Trent Mills as “Marcellus Washburn,” Joshua Blond as “Winthrop,” Lisa Dyson as “Mrs. Paroo,” Savannah Fischer as “Amaryllis,” Dani Gonzalez as “Ethel Toffelmier,” Rich Grosso as “Charlie Cowell,” Joe Hart as “Mayor Shinn,” Christie Lynn Lawrence as “Eulalie Shinn,” Antonia Vivino as “Zaneeta Shinn,” Chris Hunter as “Oliver Hix,” Jonathan Matthews as “Ewart Dunlop,” James Thomas Miller as “Olin Britt,” Richard Storrs as “Constable Locke,” L. Michael Wells as “Jacey Squires” and Adam Winer as “Tommy Djilas.”

The Ensemble features Brittany Anderson, Laura Aronoff, Nichole Beeks, Lucas Blankenhorn, Lucy Bollier, Calvin Brady, Samara Gottlieb, Tina Hidai, Scotty Jacobson, Rachel Josefina, Cleo Magill, Anne Montavon, Chet Norment, Luke Pryor, Camal Pugh, Aria Surrec, Bayley Tanenbaum, Joshua Tanenbaum, Abigail Thompson, Zachary Thompson, Dekontee Tucrkile, Spencer Ty, Weston Walker-Pardee and Samantha Wynn Greenstone.

photos by Ed Krieger

The Music Man
5-Star Theatricals (formerly Cabrillo Music Theatre)
Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
October 18-27, 2019
for tickets, call 800.745.3000 or visit 5-Star

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