Sunday, 17 August 2008

REVIEW: "The Music Man"

(Review #2 for the day. See below for the RZ's thoughts on Piaf at the Donmar.)

According to some of the RZ’s local friends, The Music Man is a show that never quite resonates properly with British audiences: the isolationist expanses of the midwest combined with a puritanical instinct for a good clean society left Britain for the most part with industrialisation.

It is this desire for an upright, clean Christian society that allows The Music Man’s central figure, “Professor” Harold Hill (Brian Conley), to work his charms: a travelling fraudster, Hill creates moral panic in small towns before proclaiming himself a musical expert and selling the people instruments and uniforms for a band he has no plan to bring together. Hill meets his match in River City, Iowa, though as stubborn self-sufficient librarian Marian (Scarlett Strallen) sees through his lies while the rest of the town falls to Hill’s slick words. It’s obvious where this is going, and the RZ stop bantering on about the plot here. The score (by Meredith Wilson, as is the book) is loaded with Broadway classics including “Ya Got Trouble,” “Pick-A-Little Talk-A-Little,” and of course “76 Trombones.” There are some who write off the score as simplistic or bland, but the numbers are all appealing, and some (“Rock Island,” “Piano Lesson”) feature rather clever techniques that make themselves apparent upon multiple listens.

In terms of production, the fine folks at the Chichester Festival Theatre have done an excellent job. From the clever use of a revolve during “Rock Island” to utilising the venue’s many entrances and exits, Rachel Kavenaugh (director) and Robert Jones (designer) have given us a pastel-hued piece of Americana that’s just the thing for a warm summer day. Howard Harrison’s lighting won’t win any awards, but it’s effective and makes good use of the CFT’s unique arrangement. More importantly, Kavenaugh’s direction actually takes advantage of the diamond-shaped stage, and patrons on the sides feel involved, rather than like voyeurs.

As Harold Hill, Brian Conley is a fast talking smooth moving fellow, but was showing signs of vocal strain when the RZ attended: perhaps a side effect from attempting to channel the late Robert Preston, who originated the role. The desire to mimic the OBC and/or original film cast is a running issue throughout the piece: there was little originality in how the characters were portrayed, and while this approach worked, it would have been nice to see something a little fresher. The RZ wasn’t blown away by Scarlett Strallen in Mary Poppins, and felt similar about her Marian, particularly her consistent but clearly not midwest-American accent. Her fans, however, will undoubtedly adore her performance here. The remainder of the cast are solid, including the children who go uncredited on the website. It’s easy for the roles of Amarylis and Winthrop to be annoying, but they weren’t, and when Marian sees Wintrhop break out of his shell to sing a verse in Wells Fargo Wagon, the moment is genuine.

50 years ago, The Music Man did what would today be considered unthinkable: it beat out West Side Story for the Best Musical Tony. In retrospect it’s easy to pass judgement, but visiting this production made the RZ remember why audiences fell in love with the show: West Side Story may be the more intellectually satisfying piece, but The Music Man is a simple, charming story that does its duties so well that it’s easy to be won over like the people of River City.

Where: Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester
When: In repertoire until 30 August. Check the website for times and dates.
How Much: £12-£36
Concessions: The usual groups can book in advance for half off on main section tickets (so £15 rear section, £18 front section)
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £36 for an excellent revival of a timeless classic. Even with the cost of a train ticket, it’s still cheaper to see it here than in a West End transfer.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ, having spent a number of years in middle America, may find himself recognising and appreciating the characters and setting more than others, but the performance he attended (a Friday matinee loaded with OAP’s and families) was quite well received.

The RZ suggests that patrons visiting from London attempt to catch a matinee instead of an evening performance - it takes 90 min. to get from London Bridge or Victoria to Chichester (and back), and catching an evening performance puts one in danger of missing rail connections and possibly the final underground for the evening.

Props to the CFT website for providing a list of the orchestra on the website.

The RZ had never heard of Brian Conley before this production, and finds the actor to be like Harold Hill himself: entirely elusive with any form of credential. The RZ still has no idea why this man is considered a selling point as his website is devoid of any useful information as to the man's past.

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