A Dazzling “Music Man” from Masquerade

In the interests of full disclosure I begin this review by revealing that “The Music Man,” by the very nature of its extraordinary existence, is one of my very favorite shows. I say that because it so joyfully speaks of a time before cell phones and video games, and captures so beautifully the bygone American era before noisy, tasteless films became the prevailing order of the day from Hollywood producers who know nothing of how to hold a camera still or put a lens in focus. “The Music Man” puts a gentle spotlight on who we would be, if we could be. It is small town America personified, and its composer (book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson) has created one of the most varied and creative scores imaginable. With all of that in mind, I dared to enter the Zilkha Hall of Houston’s Hobby Center for Masquerade Theatre’s current production of this musical theatre delight, directed by Phillip Duggins. I would not be disappointed, even though the very idea of an actor trying to erase on stage the vivid memory of Robert Preston’s Broadway and film triumphs in the role of Professor Harold Hill, is an undertaking few could accomplish. Masquerade’s talented John Gremillion can now be counted in that number.

From the gaily painted instrumental montage on the stage curtain, and the cheerful audience greeting from Mr. Duggins, we move quickly to the added cheer of the wondrous Overture of lovely and varied melodies from the fine pit orchestra (Conductor, Dr. Richard Spitz, Music Director, Sally Gardner). The curtain rises on an onstage “train” loaded with turn of the century salesmen traveling through the mid-west to their small town destinations. Salesman, Charlie Cowell, (Bruce Countryman) leads his fellow travelers in the unique, amusing, and tongue-twisting, “Rock Island” chant as the guys simulate the wonderful bouncing body movements of jostled train passengers while singing the unusual lyric. When the train arrives in River City, Iowa, we discover that notorious salesman and con-artist, Prof. Hill, is disembarking. The town explodes in greeting with the full cast in a wonderful ensemble treat, “Iowa Stubborn,” that was as visually and musically delightful as anything I have ever seen from Masquerade. The colorful costume designs of Kayleen Clements and the three-dimensional scenery painting of Amy Ross filled the stage with small town gaiety. (Ross’ numerous painted scenic backdrops were a delightful part of the show’s period charm).

Gremillion delivers a deliciously glib “You Got Trouble,” as Hill devilishly stirs up unrest among the townspeople in hopes they will buy his band instruments for their children. The fun continues as we meet pretty town librarian, Marian Paroo (Catherine Taylor), and her very Irish mother, Mrs. Paroo (Allison Sumrall) who doesn‘t mind speaking her mind in the feisty, “If Ya Don‘t Mind My Sayin’ So.” And then there is Marian’s young piano student, Amaryllis (Mia Gerachis), who plays her “cross-hand piece” with great flair. We have our first taste of Miss Taylor’s exquisite voice in the charming, “Goodnight, My Someone,” with its dreamlike conclusion in duet with young Miss Gerachis. Then, hilariously leading the town’s 4th of July pageant, the stage is re-ignited with the arrival of Masquerade favorite, Rebekah Dahl, playing the mayor’s drama queen wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. Dahl’s comic antics propel many of the show’s funniest moments. Meanwhile, her ever-exasperated husband, Mayor Shinn (Sam Brown), is trying to control the agitated populace and School Board as Professor Hill bursts forth with the musical warning, “Ya Got Trouble.” He then leads the enthusiastic residents in the rousing “Seventy-Six Trombones,” number, highlighted by the dazzling dancing of Masquerade’s many Tribble School of Performing Arts students, joyfully led by the show’s fine choreographer, Laura Gray, in her role as the Mayor‘s daughter, Zaneeta.

There is a very different but equally pleasing sound when Hill cons the School Board members(Brad Scarborough, Corey Hartzog, Michael J. Ross, and Luke Wrobel) into getting along with one another as a barber shop quartet that absolutely “nails” the harmonies of “Ice Cream” and “Sincere.” Gremillion bubbles with mischief as Harold pairs with his old friend, Marcellus (talented Evan Tessier) for a “Sadder But Wiser Girl” that nicely covers the task of following in Robert Preston’s footsteps. The next musical treat finds Mrs. Shinn and her gossipy lady friends (Libby Evans, Kayleen Clements, Jane Volke, Kristina Sullivan) singing the unusual and impossibly tricky lyric of “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little,” in perfect counterpoint to the gents seamless quartet of “Goodnight Ladies.”

As prancing Harold courts Marian at the library, we have yet another stunning dance number from the ensemble for “Marian The Librarian.” Back at the Paroo household, Marian speculates about her future mate with the pleasing and operatic, “My White Knight,” while her shy and lisping kid brother, Winthrop (Harrison Poe), is in his second year of brooding about the untimely death of his dad. But before Act One was over, he would shine with a winning voice in the full cast extravaganza of a well-staged showstopper, “The Wells Fargo Wagon.” Audience member, Lauretta Pizzitola, spoke with me during the intermission. Visibly touched by her first visit to a Masquerade production she exclaimed, “I started to cry when that wonderful little boy began to sing!”

Act Two delights included the amusing Grecian Urn Ballet from Eulalie and friends, another delicious quartet with an “It’s You” that featured some nifty dance steps from the singing foursome. But perhaps the biggest blockbuster was the stunning “Shipoopi” number brilliantly led by Mr. Tessier. I have probably mentioned it in print before, but while no lightweight, this winning actor and vocalist owns the stage with the kind of energetic grace of movement I recall from Jackie Gleason. WOW! And what a show stopping number surrounds him in the whirl of pink satin costumes, fabulous choreography, and perfect ensemble singing. But Mayor Shinn, the ultimate windbag politician, is still finding reasons to be exasperated as the town ruffian, Tommy Djilas (Colton Berry) continues to pursue the mayor’s daughter, Zaneeta.

There are still more astounding counterpoints and musical joys as Harold joins the quartet for the pairing of “Lida Rose” and “Will I Ever Tell You?” Then young Mr. Poe steals the show again with his solo turn in “Gary Indiana.” Now the second act may have had some overlong romantic segments between Harold and Marian, but the charming Footbridge Ballet and the dazzling “Seventy-Six Trombones” finale made it well-worth the wait. Bravo!

Final Masquerade performances of The Music Man at the Zilkha Hall of Houston’s Hobby Center will be this Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, with 2 pm matinees this weekend on both Saturday and Sunday. For tickets ($30-$50 ) call 713-315-2525 or visit the website at www.masqueradetheatre.com.

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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