Sunday, July 28, 2019

Pleasurable “Music Man” at Porthouse

Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man” is one of American musical theatre’s most produced shows.  Professional, community and educational theatres stage the show on a regular basis.  The songfest, which is as American as apple pie and a Fourth of July fireworks display, is now on stage at Porthouse Theatre.

The show’s march to popularity was not an easy one.  After many years of trying to convert Willson and Franklin Lacey’s hokey story into a musical, trying to shoehorn almost 40 songs into the score (twenty-two were eventually cut), more than forty script drafts, and a change of producers, the show finally opened on Broadway on December 19, 1957.

Opening night reviews were sensational, calling the production, “a marvelous show,” “rooted in wholesome and comic tradition,” and “a whopping hit.”  It went on to win five Tony Awards, including winning Best Musical recognition over “West Side Story.”  Praise was heaped on original cast members, Robert Preston, who reprised his title role in the 1962 screen adaptation, and Barbara Cook.

Willson wrote the book “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory” about the trials of getting the show to Broadway. 

Stories include that Wilson’s interest in the story was inspired by his boyhood experiences in Mason City, Iowa.  In addition, it is revealed that the song, “Ya Got Trouble,” was originally spoken dialogue about the serious woes facing River City parents, but during the developmental process it was realized the words had a sound to it that was ideal for a “patter song,” so music was written to underscore the cadence.  

We also become aware that in “the original production (and the film), the School Board was played by the Buffalo Bills, the 1950 International Quartet Champions of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA).”

And, “Robert Preston claimed that he got the role of Harold Hill despite his limited singing range because, when he went to audition, they were having the men sing "Trouble." The producers felt it would be the most difficult song to sing, but with his acting background, it was the easy for Preston.”

As for the story, “the plot concerns con-man, Harold Hill, who poses as a boys' band organizer and leader, selling band instruments and uniforms to naive Midwestern townsfolk.  He promises to train the members of the new band.  Harold is no musician, however, and plans to skip town without giving any music lessons. Prim librarian and piano teacher Marian sees through him.  When Harold helps her younger brother overcome his lisp and social awkwardness, Madam Librarian changes her tune.  And, of course, as happens in all good musical comedy love stories, Marian falls in love and Harold risks being caught to win her hand. As the lights go out all are assured that the duo will live happily ever after.

Though pleasant, the Porthouse production is not without its flaws.

The strengths of the production, under the directorship of Terri Kent, are the enthusiastic large cast, the high quality of the musicianship under the baton of Jonathan Swoboda, the creative set by Nolan O’Dell, the quality of the sound as designed by Parker Strong, where the music and voice balance make for easy hearing of the lyrics, the high quality of singing voices, and some of the performances.

Thom Christopher Warren does a nice job of setting up Harold Hill.  Though he could have been a little more hard-sell in his con-man approach, he is charming enough to be believable as a sham salesman.  He has a good singing voice and his ability to do patter is excellent, as displayed in “Ya Got Trouble.”

Though there seems to be little emotional connection between her and Warren, Emma Sohlberg is properly uptight as Marian, the librarian.  Her “Goodnight, My Someone,” sung with adorable Mai Renard (Amaryllis) was charming.

Mason Henning does a nice turn as “bad boy” Tommy and the Quartet--Tim Culiver, Sam Johnson, Morgan Thomas-Mills and Jay White--were pitch-perfect.  Bernadette Hisey, as has come to be expected from this talented actress, was delightful as Mrs. Paroo.  Rohn Thomas nicely “phumphered” his way as Mayor Shinn.

The dancing, which was enthusiastic and creatively designed, lacked precision.  Maybe after the show runs for a while the movements will look less labored and more polished.

The show would have been aesthetically aided by era-correctly costumes.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “The Music Man” is a staple of the American musical theater genre.  It makes for a wonderful summer escape.  The Porthouse production is not without its flaws, but all in all, the end result is a pleasurable experience.

“Music Man” runs at Porthouse Theatre through August 11, 2019.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to