Los Angeles Theater Preview: THE MUSIC MAN (Musical Theatre West in Long Beach)

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by Tony Frankel on February 15, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


When Musical Theatre West announced their production of The Music Man, which opens tonight at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, 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 Davis Gaines as Harold Hill with the Ensemble of Musical Theatre West's THE MUSIC MAN.Susan Stroman’s Broadway revival. Now, Davis Gaines, who has continually surprised me with his youthful demeanor and comic chops in various projects of the last few years (Man of La ManchaKiss Me, KateSpamalot1776Mack & Mabel), 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. Gail Bennett, who performed the title role in Mary Poppins during the First National Tour, plays town librarian Marian Paroo, who isn’t fooled by Hill’s convincing doublespeak. In addition, MTW consistently offers Broadway-caliber production values, so a sight-unseen recommendation is in order.

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

Davis Gaines as Harold Hill, with the Company of Musical Theatre West's THE MUSIC MAN.

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.

Donna Louden as Ethel Toffelmier and Matt Walker as Marcellus Washburn in Musical Theatre West's THE MUSIC MAN.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 had 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 (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.

Rebecca Spencer as Eulalie MacKechnie Shinn with the Company of Musical Theatre West's THE MUSIC MAN.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 Frank 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.)

Gale Bennett as Marian Paroo and Davis Gaines as Harold Hill in Musical Theatre West's THE MUSIC MANRegardless, 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 ’57 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. Perhaps Musical Theatre West will bring us West Side Story soon, but in the meantime you can ride the rails to Long Beach to see a musical the likes of which we haven’t seen since Ike was in office.

photos by Caught in the Moment Photography

The Music Man
Musical Theatre West
Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center
6200 Atherton St in Long Beach
plays through March 2, 2014
for tickets, call 562-856-1999 x 4 or visit www.musical.org

Brian Vickery and Davis Gaines as Harold Hill in Musical Theatre West's THE MUSIC MAN.In alphabetical order, the cast also features Ashley Anderson (Zanetta Shinn), Maguire Balleweg (Amaryllis), Paige Brinskele (Pick-a-Little), Emzy Burroughs (Oliver Hix), Peyton Crim (Olin Britt), Joey D’Auria (Mayor Shinn), Jon Hand (Constable Lock), Emilie Lafontaine (Gracie Shinn), Cathy Newman (Mrs. Paroo), Jenny Moon Shaw (Pick-a-Little), Rebecca Spencer (Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn), Bryan Vickery (Jacey Squires) and Matt Walker (Marcellus).

The ensemble includes Eboni Adams, Steven Adam Agdeppa, Mackinnley Balleweg Luke Beshoff, Kenzie Braithwaite, Mackenzie Browning, Matthew Funke, Sammy Gayer, Shayna Gayer, Jenna Gillespie, Nancy Lam, Derek Anthony Lewis, Tyler Logan, Kimberly Mikesell, Gemma Pedersen, Michelle M. Pedersen, Steven Rada, Christanna Rowader, Taylor Simmons and Christopher Utley.

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