'Music Man' is impressive season closer for Live Arts Maryland

Composer-lyricist Meredith Willson's musical tale won the 1958 Tony Award for Best Musical

  • Till There Was You" number being sung by Michelle Jennings as Marian and Tom Magette as Harold Hill in Music Man at Maryland Hall.
Till There Was You" number being sung by Michelle Jennings… (Bud Johnson, Baltimore…)
May 05, 2011|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Live Arts Maryland's season-closing production of "The Music Man" at Maryland Hall brought a pre-World War I small town to life with skilled musical direction and several memorable vocal performances.

Music director J. Ernest Green led the Annapolis Chorale, Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and cast members in the April 29-30 weekend performances of the musical, set in 1912, which sees a traveling salesman/con man change his ways.

Composer-lyricist Meredith Willson's musical tale won the 1958 Tony Award for best musical, somehow besting Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" that year to place Willson at the top of Broadway composers. "The Music Man" features the charismatic Harold Hill role first created on stage and film by Robert Preston.

As he has done before in other towns, Hill arrives in River City, Iowa, to run a scam in which he forms a boys' band in order to sell instruments and uniforms, despite knowing nothing about teaching them to play music.

He convinces the boys' parents that by learning to play musical instruments, their sons will stay out of trouble at the local pool hall. Hill can collect steep fees for items that he does not intend to deliver before he leaves town. But "here in River City," Hill falls in love with straight-laced librarian Marian Paroo, who is onto his lies from the first. Marian softens toward Hill when she sees how her shy little brother Winthrop gains confidence when inspired by Hill's encouragement.

When Annapolis Chamber Orchestra members started the orchestral overture with the rousing "76 Trombones," Maryland Hall was filled with the magical sounds of Willson's timeless score. Soon Annapolis Chorale members offered their lively rendition of "Iowa Stubborn." Chorale members and the orchestra filled most of the stage, with only the front few feet serving as stage space where cast members delivered condensed dialogue and lively dance and song.

Tom Magette reprised the role of Howard Hill that he first created under Green for the Annapolis Chorale in February 2004. His opening high-speed rendition of "Ya Got Trouble" seemed as lively as the remembered earlier one. Magette retained his swagger and high-voltage charm as he moved snappily across the stage and down the aisles among the audience while singing a bright "76 Trombones."

For me, the major delight of this production was discovering soprano Michelle Jennings, who played the role of Marian. Jennings has an expressive voice of great beauty and power that would be at home on any stage, and she is an accomplished actress whose every word was clearly intelligible. She is also a commanding and attractive presence on stage.

The major highlights of the evening included Jennings' lovely duet with Magette of "76 Trombones" and "Goodnight, My Someone" that combines march and waltz in the same melody, demonstrating this couple's connection along with Willson's musical genius. Most outstanding was the "Till There Was You" duet, which moved this song into a gorgeous new realm.

Other outstanding cast members were young John Morrison as Winthrop and Eric Alexis as Hill's faithful friend Marcellus, who has left his former con-man days and is now settled down into a normal home life in River City. Laurie Hays sang beautifully and was a lovely Mrs. Paroo. Molly Moore Green created stage excitement, displayed special grace and real comic flair as feisty Eulalie Shinn, clever wife of Mayor Shinn.

Ray Landrum was suitably bungling as Mayor Shinn, and young Samantha Couto was a fine Amaryllis. Other chorale members who proved they could act include Craig Miller as Charlie Cowell, Melanie Anderson as Ethel, Phyllis Everette as Maud, Sharon Potts as Alma, and Susan Birmingham as Mrs. Squires.

The program listed Joe Chilcoat, George Korch, Tom Nisbet and Jeff Whall as school board members, who I suspect might have formed the memorable quartet that harmonized "Lida Rose" so well.

Special kudos are due the various students who made up the handsome and impressive marching band.

Under Green's skilled direction, musicians, soloists and choristers provided a near-capacity audience a memorable old-fashioned Fourth of July to end this music season.

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