The audience on opening weekend at Weathervane Playhouse, a Knight Arts grantee, really got into “Music Man,” Meredith Willson’s joyous musical comedy. Who knows, maybe it was because there had to be lots of relatives of the 40+ members of the cast.
That would do it, but that’s not why.
Willson’s play has been called “quintessential,” and that’s as good a word as any. The story is corny — a traveling salesman comes to town bent on fleecing its citizens but instead becomes a prominent member of society through the love of a good woman (the maidenly town librarian) and a grateful community.
But the tale works because a great musical score underpins it. Who can keep from smiling and tapping one’s toes to “Shipoopi,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon” that’s “coming down the street,” or “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” as sung by a gaggle of women who sounds every bit like clucking hens? Hardly anyone I’d imagine.
The themes, narrative and music play off each other. Basically, librarian Marian Paroo’s song “Goodnight, My Someone” (her heartfelt song about her capacity to love and share it) is the same tune – although at a different tempo and with other orchestration – as salesman Harold Hill’s “Seventy-Six Trombones,” through which he mesmerizes the townspeople into buying instruments and uniforms for the idea of a band that pretty much will never be. When the two tunes are reprised in Act Two, the merged song and lyrics identify how the two different stories and themes of love and redemption finally come together to resolve the plot. Pretty cool.
Without strong main characters, the play could possibly get into some “Trouble” of its own (to use the title of one of the show’s songs). That doesn’t happen with the Weathervane Playhouse production. Michelle Rae Chaho (Marian Paroo) is a solid actress who couples her character with a beautiful, clear, sonorous soprano voice. Every word was finely tuned and could be understood.
In other productions of “Music Man” (including the movie version), the Harold Hill character can look like a bad dude whom the audience somehow comes to accept. Dave Hetrick, who plays the title character here, looks like a nice guy, but manages to pull off the sleazebag traveling salesman act with feigned gusto until he re-emerges at the end as the guy the town wants to wrap its arms around.
Character roles were done particularly strong as well. Meg Hopp (as Mrs. Paroo), Jackson Sturkey (as former Harold Hill sidekick Marcellus Washburn), Wilson Anthony Truong Ha (as little Winthrop Paroo singing “Gary, Indiana”) and Michele McNeal (as the mayor’s wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn) took their musical and acting turns on the stage and commanded attention.
The barbershop quartet, which is a masterful musical conceit, was superb. Jeremy Feola, Adam Vigneault, Brian Mueller and bass Steven J. Davis added a discovered suavity to the characters of rural country bumpkins – and thus showed the wonderful effect of music on a person’s life.
Meredith Willson’s “Music Man” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. Performances run through June 30 at the Weathervane Playhouse, 1301 Weathervane Lane, Akron; 330-836-2626; www.weathervaneplayhyouse.com. Tickets are $25.