Triumph in River City

AMT's The Music Man Is a Big Success: Emphasis on Big

Triumph in River City

Texas has towns -- by-god real municipalities -- that are smaller than the theatrical one in the current Austin Musical Theatre production of The Music Man. When the citizens of River City appear from the sides of the Palmer Auditorium stage to sing about their Io-way stubbornness and contrary disposition, they don't trickle out in a modest stream of mock Midwesterners -- that dozen or two you expect in a local musical production. No, they gush out in a great flow of humanity: 20, 30, 40 Iowans ... and they keep coming! They reach 50, 60, 70 ... and still they come! Ultimately, more than 80 of these cornfield curmudgeons fill the stage, so many that they crowd out our view of the geometrically precise Victorian homes and town square shops with which set designer James Fouchard has so prettily defined both the turn-of-the-century setting and the Midwesterners' square-corners sensibility. Perhaps in this day of megabytes and Million Mom Marches, a number that falls shy of three digits might seem less than noteworthy, especially when rendered flatly on a newspaper page, but applied to a throng of singing, dancing bodies assembled under a proscenium arch, it's impressive. The spectacle of it is enough to sweep you up into Meredith Willson's nostalgic world and think, That is a whole town up there. Ye gods!

Now, that's not to say that this show by Austin Musical Theatre (AMT) succeeds solely on the size of its cast or that you can't do a completely creditable production of this musical with fewer people. It doesn't and you can; indeed, many folks have. But The Music Man is one of those shows that really lends itself to the kind of expanded company that Austin Musical Theatre is using. After all, it's the story of one man against an entire community; it's about that man using his considerable powers of persuasion to bring every member of the community under his spell. Your staging of this musical may have a humdinger of a Harold Hill -- and AMT surely has one in the folksily winning Larry Gatlin -- but without a strong batch of stiff-necked River City rubes for him to cozy up to and sweet-talk and finagle, you don't have a show.

In fact, the portrait of these townsfolk is one of Meredith Willson's landmark achievements with The Music Man. Almost no other classic American musical gives us such an expansive view of a whole community: its young people, its grown-ups, its families, its merchants and municipal leaders and busybodies, its pastimes and civic celebrations, its sense of history, its sense of culture, its sense of self. All of it is meticulously laid out in Willson's delightful book and lyrics, pillaged from his childhood memories of life in Mason City, Iowa, circa 1910. Willson seems to want us to know this time and place as intimately as he does, and so he guides us on a stroll down the main street, pointing out this business and that; he sits us down in the school gymnasium bleachers to view a civic historical pageant; he clues us in to the private squabbles and pecadilloes that hide behind the lace curtains of the town's gingerbread homes.

Willson is dazzlingly specific in the details of this world, and in the references to the domestic chores of fetching well water and pounding beefsteak, in the grousing over the newspaper's inaccuracy in predicting the weather, in the youthfully rebellious exclamation "Great Honk!" and the paternal threat "You'll hear from me till who laid the rails," in the clucking over the assumed liaison between the town miser and the lady librarian, and the moral disapproval of that racy periodical Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, in the keen anticipation of the much watched-for Wells Fargo wagon and the manifold material dreams it carries -- from Seattle salmon to Florida grapefruit, cross-cut saw to gray mackinaw -- lie the warp and woof of daily life in a shared society. This River City eventually becomes so familiar that you could practically give someone directions from the municipal park to the Madison Public Library.

Austin Musical Theatre director Scott Thompson proves himself sensitive to the importance of the River City community in telling this story. His colossus of a chorus isn't there merely to serve as spectacle (though the same can't necessarily be said for the live horse that pulls the much-ballyhooed Wells Fargo wagon into view); Thompson's 80-plus mob is there as a character. It's the crusty and cantankerous populace that poses the challenge of a lifetime for the flimflamming Harold Hill, and you can see it in all the perpetually pinched faces and skeptical squints. Indeed, the prevalence of pursed lips and jaundiced eyes suggests that in this town it's against the law to walk on the sunny side of the street. Such a legislative mandate make particular sense here given the way this production's first couple of River City sets the standard for crabbiness: Ev Lunning's Mayor Shinn is a USDA Grade A sourpuss whose neck veins bulge and voice goes tight at the slightest provocation; and the formidable Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn is played with hilariously forbidding authority by Laura Kenny -- hardline police interrogators are less intimidating!

Yes, in AMT's River City, Harold Hill has his work cut out for him. And fortunately, the man Thompson has cajoled into playing Willson's "bang-beat, bell-ringin', big-haul, great-go, neck-or-nothin', rip-roarin', ever'-time-a-bull's-eye salesman" is up to the job. It's not a role without its special risks; every interpreter labors in the shadow of Robert Preston, the first and probably the finest Harold Hill ever. But even so, Gatlin has little problem establishing a character that is distinctively his. He simply -- but wisely -- plays into the down-home demeanor that fans of his music career know so well: the easygoing manner, the smooth vocal style, the earthy rural dialect that can go soft in a drawl or sharp with a twang. He gives us a confidence man whose powers of persuasion have been cribbed from the country preacher. Faced with the line "Now I know all you folks are the right kind of parents," Gatlin croons it with the sort of honeyed, homey concern that recalls the pastor who'd ride miles through a blinding storm to minister to a sick neighbor; and confronting the follow-up line "Friends, the idle brain is the devil's playground," he thunders it so that it rings with the peculiarly judgmental tone of a revival-tent Bible-thumper. The result of this common-sense approach is the part of Hill fits Gatlin like a well-worn boot.

Triumph in River City

Only once on opening night did Gatlin seem ill at ease in any way, and that was early in the signature number "Trouble." The song is demanding, what with its nonstop four minutes of patter about pool with a capital P, but it's made more than usually demanding here by Thompson's choreography, which requires Gatlin to stay in almost constant motion. In the effort to coordinate steps and song, Gatlin's face ever so briefly lost its congenial luster and dimmed into a mask of concentration. The lapse, however, lasted little more than halfway through the number. Then Gatlin eased into the song and, like a preacher warming to his theme, grew progressively more confident and vigorous. From that point on, there was never any question as to Gatlin's ability to pull off the part or the ability of his Professor Hill to make a sale of whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted, be it the dream of a boys' band to the gruff inhabitants of River City or the dream of a true romance to a certain standoffish librarian named Marian.

Given the almost classical beauty of actress LuAnn Aronson, you might find it hard to imagine her Marian Paroo lacking for suitors, even with a whiff of scandal hanging over the library where she works. But Aronson fits out her librarian with a spine as stiff as one of her volumes of Balzac and all but freezes her face into a mask of porcelain reserve -- nothing haughty or contemptuous, mind you, nothing so severe, but something cool and self-contained. You get the feeling those fellows in River City wouldn't know how to begin to reach her heart, if they thought she even had one. But she does, and her full, strong voice -- within a stone's throw of operatic -- bespeaks the ripe and very real passion locked deep under Marian's cool, hard shell.

Of course, part of what we love to see in this story is the softening of that shell, the warmth of this woman -- evident from the start, in her tender lullaby "Goodnight My Someone" -- rising to the surface. Aronson takes that aspect of The Music Man beyond the merely pleasurable and into the realm of the truly moving. Near the end of the play, when Marian meets Harold at the footbridge and acknowledges the change in her life since he appeared in town, Aronson is bathed in radiance -- and the source has less to do with Tony Tucci's lighting, expert though it is, than the resplendent joy the actress projects. Her appreciation of what Harold Hill has given her and the town -- the hope, the dreams, the ability to hear the music that is all around if only one stops to listen for it -- is so pure, so genuine, that it is as if this remote and frosty librarian has been transformed from alabaster to light.

When all is said and done, AMT's production of The Music Man succeeds as much on the virtues of this kind of tenderness and sweetness as any other quality. That comes through again and again in the show's smaller moments and individual performances, such as the incandescent work of young Alex Rollins as the lisping Winthrop Paroo; his enthusiastic delivery in "Wells Fargo" and "Gary, Indiana" doesn't just thplatter etheth thith way and that, it jubilantly thyoots thunbeamth all over the thtage. You can also find it in the celestial harmonies of the barbershop quartet Tuxedo Junction on the songs "Sincere" and "Lida Rose," glorious reminders of the power of the human voice to produce the most exquisite music unaided by any instrument. And you can find it in Arnonson's performance of "Being in Love," when her especially tender reading of the line "Him I could love till I die" reveals Marian's yearning in all its poignance.

Perhaps more amazingly -- and in a way, more significantly -- that sweetness shines through in some of the show's big moments, too. In the midst of the monumental "Iowa Stubborn" number at the outset, the huge chorus takes a break from cataloguing the ways in which Iowans aren't especially generous or agreeable to allow that they'll "give you our shirt and the back to go with it/If your crops should happen to die." Willson's music slows for the phrase and takes on an almost churchlike character, like a sacred choral work. The 80-plus cast delivers the line with a rich empathy, their voices blending and soaring -- tribute to the excellent musical direction of Fred Barton -- like a band of consoling angels. The grand production number "Shipoopi," led by Harold Hill's sidekick Marcellus at the ice cream social, exudes that trademark AMT exuberance with dozens of talented young dancers spinning and whirling and kicking up their heels as if the very act of moving bred in them a kind of rapture. Here, in the context of a small-town social, ages removed from our high-speed, high-tech, high-risk age, that show-biz verve familiar from past AMT extravaganzas comes across as especially springlike and innocent. It feels so simple and pure, and with the dancers all clad in plums and pastel purples of Matthew Kelbaugh's luscious outfits and coated in candy-colored light by Tony Tucci, the song is like a fantasia in raspberry sherbet. It's an ideal showcase for local actor Scotty Roberts -- sweet and light and fun, just like he is -- and as Marcellus, he serves it up as breezily as a Sunday in March; it's a fine performer at his buoyant best, and it's a special pleasure to watch him head up this big a number.

Wherever you find this expression of sweetness and tenderness however, it's evidence of the same quality that has run through all of Austin Musical Theatre's productions, a quality that ultimately figures more prominently than all the talent and professional polish: heart. That is what binds these disparate performers into a whole, that creates in them that binding purpose that translates so well into an onstage sense of community. In the end, the heart that beats within AMT's The Music Man may be the biggest thing of all in this big, big show.

It's a treat to see Austin Musical Theatre finally stage Meredith Willson's masterpiece, not only because it was one of the first works the company planned to produce when it got off the ground three years ago (Is it only three years? It seems like so much more!) and not only because it's a natural work for AMT to mount, but because the musical's story is also in part the company's story. Here we were, a city on a river, and one day a couple of guys breezed into town and began selling a dream that involved music. They fought an uphill battle to get us to buy into it -- after all, their dream wasn't one that anyone who already lived here felt any burning need to see realized -- but ultimately we did and our city is a different place for it, a better place for it. As Marian says to Harold at the footbridge, do you remember what it was like before? Do you remember?

I remember, and like Marian, I want this production of The Music Man to celebrate what Scott Thompson and Richard Byron have given us: the lights and the flags and the colors and the cymbals. And the towns bigger than by-god real towns in Texas. end story

The Music Man runs through May 21, Thu-Sun, at Palmer Auditorium. Call 469-SHOW for info.

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Austin Musical Theatre, The Music Man, Scott Thompson, Richard Byron, Meredith Willson, Larry Gatlin, LuAnn Aronson, Ev Lunning, Laura Kenny, TonyTucci, Alex Rollins, Matthew Kelbaugh, Tuxedo Junction, Fred Barton, Scotty Roberts

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