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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Chichester Festival Theater


  Brian Conley

It ran for 1375 performances on Broadway and shamelessly stole the thunder from West Side Story which was unlucky enough to open the same season (1958). It garnered a massive bouquet of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and made a superstar of its leading man,Robert Preston, who consolidated his triumphant performance as con-man Harold Hill in the brilliant screen version that followed.

The show, of course, is Meredith Wilson's The Music Man, which, as you probably know, is the story of a smooth-talking small-time travelling salesman, who, in Iowa circa 1910, attempts to con the gullible but up-tight citizens of River City by promising to form a local boy's band and persuading parents to part with cash for costumes and musical instruments.

Hill, of course, has no intention of making good his promises, and plans to leave town with the money as soon as he can.

Of course, it doesn't turn out that way. In quick succession his charm works its magic on four bickering school-board committee members, turning them into an inseperable barber shop quartet, he tames the local wild kid through a kindly gesture, flatters the ladies who comprise the local dramatic society, wins over the town's curmudgeonly mayor, and,best of all, melts the heart of Marian, the librarian, by giving her introverted, uncommunicative young brother Winthrop, a personality makeover by promising him a musical instrument and a flashy costume to go with it.

How Harold Hill eventually redeems himself and, at the same time falls in love with Marian, gives this miraculous musical its narrative drive and its undeniable feelgood factor.

Willson, who wrote the book, the music and the lyrics, shines in all three departments. The plotting is economical and concise and the music, which includes such great tunes as 76 Trombones and Till There Was You, as well as exhilaratingly inventive rythmic patter songs like Trouble and the a capella opening, is fresh and original, As for the lyrics, they're pure homespun Americana.

But no production of The Music Man can succeed without a rock-solid central performance, and Brian Conley, who once played the extrovert Al Jolson in a stage musical about the man considered to be the word's greatest entertainer,certainly has all the credentials for Harold Hill.

By the opening night, however, his voice had developed a slight rasp, due no doubt to over-use in rehearsals, and he has yet to develop a more convincing rapport with Scarlett Strallen's gloriously sung Marian. But this, I'm sure will come as he settles into what, after all, is one of the most high-profile and demanding roles in musical comedy.

The rest of the company, including Rolf Saxon as the self-important Mayor Shinn and Jenny Galloway as his wife Eulalie, delightfully capture the spirit of the piece, and there are engaging performances from Eddie Manning as young Winthrop and Andy Hockley as an erstwhile crooked associate of Hill's, now settled into respectability.

Willson's catchy score provides opportunities for several rousing dance routines, and while Stephen Mear does his best to keep the show on its toes, numbers such as Marian the Librarian (set in the town's public library) should have been more inventive. As for the famous set-piece, 76 Trombones, Mear's staging of it in the exuberant curtain-call is more effective than it is in the context of Act One.

The original show calls for several distinct sets, though Robert Jones relies on a single Main Street backdrop and various props to evoke River City and its environs. A pity, as it robs the production (energetically directed by Rachel Kavanaugh) of a<


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