The first musical I remember attending was “The Music Man” at the local high school. I was in the fourth grade and auditioned for the role of Winthrop, but lost to a kid with red hair (much like Ron Howard from the 1962 movie adaptation) – and likely, a better singing voice. Still, I loved Meredith Willson’s affectionate tribute to Small Town America, and it still ranks today as one of my all-time favorite musicals.
So when Dexter’s The Encore Musical Theatre Company announced its summer schedule, none of my fellow critics had a shot at being there on opening night. And ye gods, what an entertaining night of theater director Jon Huffman has given us!
Set in the fictional town of River City, Iowa circa 1912, a train pulls into town carrying Professor Harold Hill, a traveling salesman who arrives unannounced to organize a boys’ band. Noting the town’s new pool table and its reputation for causing juvenile delinquency (or so he claims), Hill conquers the town’s initial hesitancy and organizes not only a band, but a barbershop quartet and a women’s dance committee as well – all while he wins the heart of the “old maid” librarian, Marian Paroo.
But what the community doesn’t know is this: Hill is a sweet-talking con man who knows nothing about music. And Charlie Cowell, a legitimate traveling salesman angry with Hill for giving his profession a bad name, wants to rectify that!
According to Willson’s view of the simpler life in small towns across Middle America, honest people are willing to pull together and forgive just about anything. Likewise, director Huffman has brought together what seems like a cast of thousands (OK, dozens) and beautifully recreates the atmosphere Willson paints so vividly through his memorable music and lyrics.
What’s more impressive, though, is this: Huffman and choreographer Barb Cullen sometimes move 27 to 30 kids and adults around The Encore’s rather tight stage without a single traffic jam. And on opening night, no one looked as if they wandered into the wrong spot at the end of a dance number. With so many people of varying ages and performance experience to work with, that alone is noteworthy!
All of the show’s memorable scenes are handled well by Huffman and his cast, from the opening “Rock Island” (“whaddayatalk, whaddayatalk, whaddayatalk, whaddayatalk”) to the famous numbers “The Wells Fargo Wagon” and “Seventy-Six Trombones.” (Kudos, too, to Keith Allan Kalinowski and the Traveling Salesmen for handling a chair accident in the opening scene with much finesse.) And under the watchful ears of music director Brian E. Buckner, the ensemble’s singing voices blend together quite well at all times. That’s especially true of the Barbershop Quartet, whose smooth delivery could convince anyone they’d been performing together for many years.
The supporting cast is generally quite good, with Mary Rumman a standout as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor’s wife and leader of the women’s dance group. And all of the talented kids are as charming as you might expect – although Linus Babcock, who plays Winthrop Paroo, likely earned a stern “talking to” by the director for some mugging that occurred in the second act. (He’s cute, and he obviously knows it!)
The success of the show, though, hinges on the believability of Harold Hill and Marian Paroo. Although at first blush you might wonder about Huffman’s casting choices, together Zachary Barnes and Stephanie Souza make a winning combination.
Stephanie Souza’s strongest asset is her singing voice, and it’s beautifully showcased in all of Marian’s songs. A show highlight is “My White Knight” in which she effortlessly hits the high notes. And her second act “Till There Was You” with Barnes is quite heartwarming.
Barnes, though, is not your typical Hill. Generally played by a classically handsome, suave and athletically built scalawag whom every woman would want to sleep with, Barnes has an expressive character-actor face and lanky body that he impishly uses with great skill. His tools are his eyes, his arms, his brows and his voice, and all are used effectively to help create a multi-dimensional character that serves the show quite well.
Fine contributions are also made by Leo Babcock (set design), Daniel Fowler (lighting design) and Sharon Larkey Urick (costume design).
So while there’s certainly trouble in River City, summertime at The Encore is quite entertaining indeed!
‘The Music Man’
The Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through July 31. $28. 734-268-6200. http://theencoretheatre.org