I've seen plenty of productions of Meredith Wilson's The Music Man over the years — one of the first shows I ever saw was a community production of the musical in Apple Valley several decades ago — but I have never seen one that truly unlocked Wilson's original like Ten Thousand Things' version at Open Book.
Employing a tiny cast and a two-person orchestra, this Music Man embraces the flim-flam artistry at the heart of the story. Like Harold Hill, the actors have to convince us that the bare floors and spare set (expertly designed by Joel Sass) are the confines of River City, Iowa; that the same quartet of performers are both the members of the school board and the "Pick-a-little" ladies; and that a single boy in uniform can take the place of a marching band made up of the town's young people.
Luverne Seifert leads the crew as Professor Harold Hill, who comes to town with a scheme to sell instruments, band uniforms, and instruction books to the youth of River City. That he can't play a lick of music isn't a hindrance; he hopes to be on the last train out of town before his deception is discovered.
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Things don't go as planned, of course. The headstrong librarian, Marian, played by Aimee Bryant, sees through Harold's con artistry. Yet once she sees what the hope of a band means for the kids — especially for her shy, lisping brother Winthrop (Ricardo Vazquez) — Marian finds herself falling for the con man. (A little push from her mother, brought to life by a delightful Dennis Spears, doesn't hurt.) And to his surprise, the con man falls for the madam librarian, too.
That's all in the script, but the bond that Seifert and Bryant build is remarkably strong and touching. And though the acting from this talented duo is key, there's also something magical about the staging. In a big room, there's no space for subtle touches; in Open Book's intimate setting, the tender scenes before and after "Till There Was You" are absolutely riveting.
That even goes for the big numbers (though "big" is a relative term here). "Seventy-Six Trombones" starts softly, as Seifert draws in the assembled townsfolk — and the audience — with quietly spoken wonder about that magical marching band. As the song builds, we can all see the wonder he describes — and feel the growing sense of excitement of the potential band for River City.
"Excitement" is a good word here. There are plenty of moments that are thrilling enough to make you giddy. From the opening "Rock Island" through "The Wells Fargo Wagon," playful moments abound. And as the same four actors — Sarah Agnew, Bradley Greenwald, Jim Lichtscheidl, and Kimberly Richardson — play multiple parts, some truly deft performing (and some quick costume swapping) takes place, particularly when the two groups need to sing in counterpoint.
The music goes beyond the two talented players — Jake Endres and Peter Vitale — to include the rest of the cast. During "Marian the Librarian," the players flip through pages of their books to add to the rhythm. Later, these become useful props, such as when the good Professor sings about staying on the floor until his body "turned to carrion," at which point the players flap their books as if they were vultures.
Give director Lear deBessonet plenty of the credit. As she did with Ten Thousand Things' As You Like It and My Fair Lady, the Obie-winning director creates a world that is full of energy, drive, and life, giving a beloved American classic a new lease on life.