Sunday, March 2, 2014

"The Music Man" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

"There were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing, no I never heard them at all, 'till there was you." So sings Marian the librarian in the classic musical The Music Man when Professor Harold Hill comes into her life and her town, bringing music and community and hope along with him. And this is how I feel about The Music Man after seeing Ten Thousand Things' production. Even though I saw it on stage once before and am very familiar with the movie, I never realized what it was really about until Ten Thousand Things stripped away all of the unnecessary fluff to reveal the true heart of the piece. I was lucky enough to attend a dress rehearsal a few weeks ago, and saw the full production last night (although there was very little difference except that the audience was larger). TTT applies their usual bare bones, straight-to-the-heart-of-the-matter style of theater to the classic musical about a con man salesman and the small Iowa town forever changed by his visit, and it is, in a word, spellbinding. This ensemble of wonderful actors led by Luverne Seifert cast their spell over me just as Professor Harold Hill cast his spell over the people of River City. I've seen a dozen Ten Thousand Things shows over the last several years and love everything they do, but this show is my favorite. So utterly charming, delightful, sweet, funny, and moving, it's a perfectly executed concept.

Marian the librarian and Professor Hill
(Aimee Bryant and Luverne Seifert)
Luverne Seifert is an absolute charmer as Professor Hill, as he easily wins over the town with his smooth-talking ways, and stern Marian the librarian a little less easily. I knew Luverne was a comic genius and the best kind of clown, but I have to say, I fell in love with him a little in this performance. He's a true romantic leading man, a role I've never seen him in before. He shares great chemistry with Aimee Bryant, who conveys Marian's strength of character and longing for something more, and lends her lovely voice to such songs as "Goodnight My Someone." Dennis Spears is a delight as her mother (in a great example of TTT's color- and gender-blind casting, an African American man plays an Irish woman). Recently crowned Ivey Emerging Artist Ricardo Vasquez plays Marian's little brother Winthrop (whose lisp was made famous by little Ronnie Howard). Ricardo completely transforms into a ten-year-old boy, and not just any ten-year-old boy, but a sad, lost, troubled ten-year-old boy. When he begins to open up thanks to music and the band and friendship, it's a thing of beauty. Rounding out the cast as salesmen, townspeople, school board members, and dancing ladies are Bradley Greenwald, literally waving his tail feathers as the mayor's wife; Jim Lichtsheidl, especially funny as the blustering idiot of a mayor (Bradley and Jim work so well together they should always play a married couple!); Sarah Agnew as the Professor's Shipoopi buddy and a fawning teenage girl (ee gads!); and Kimberly Richardson, charming in the piano lesson scene as the breathy little girl with a crush on Winthrop.

Luverne Seifert and the cast of The Music Man
The wonderful thing about musicals as performed by Ten Thousand Things is that because it's quite stripped down (just a two-person band in this case - Jake Endres on keyboard and Peter Vitale on a myriad of instruments), the music feels very organic to the characters and story. Unlike typical musicals in which there's a clear differentiation between full-blown musical numbers and straight dialogue, the actors flow naturally back and forth between speaking and singing, with the band subtly coming in to support them. The Music Man is a good choice for this sort of style, with it's rhythmic talky songs. The fast and lyric-heavy opening number on the train* ("you gotta know the territory!") is extremely well-done by the cast, as is "Ya Got Trouble," and everything with the barbershop quartet and gossiping ladies - the same four actors switching back and forth, often within the same scene! But my favorite moment is the most famous song in the show. How do you create the sound of 76 trombones with just two musicians? You don't even try, you do it as a soft, gentle, reverent plea. In the dress rehearsal I was sitting a few feet from Luverne and could see the awe and wonder in his eyes as he softly spoke of this marvelous band, and I fell completely under his spell as much as the townspeople did. The speaking eventually becomes singing, with the musicians chiming in as it grows into the familiar big band song.

The sparse set (by Joel Sass) and costumes (by Mary Anna Culligan) are so charming and effective. Each of the four corners of the square that is the Ten Thousand Things stage holds a weathered white post on which various signs are hung to represent the billiard hall, the Peroo home, the Wells Fargo Wagon, or the city gymnasium. Costumes are of a pale muted hue one night wear in the hot Iowa summer, and provide a great base for accessories to differentiate characters. In the blink of an eye, the actors change hats or add a shawl and transform into someone else entirely.

There's a reason The Music Man is such a classic. It's a beautiful story about the power of music, storytelling, family, friendship, community, and having a common goal. Professor Hill gives River City hope and something to strive for, and Marian's love and faith in him help him become the man that she thinks he is. With direction by Lear deBessonet and choreography by Jim Lichtsheidl, this is a wonderfully unique and delightful interpretation of this familiar story. Ten Thousand Things productions are always extremely professional, yet retain a playfulness and laid back feeling that draw the audience in, whether that audience is comprised of prisoners or seasoned theater-goers. Only five public performances remain and they're entirely sold out, but they do sell a limited number of 4th row seats at the door (yes, 4th row are the "bad seats" in this intimate staging). If you don't already have tickets, I highly recommend you show up and take a chance on these seats. This is a show not to be missed!

*I once saw Bradley Greenwald perform the opening number by himself, and it was quite impressive!