Music Theatre of Wichita marched jauntily and confidently into its 40th anniversary season with a big, beautiful, bountiful version of Meredith Willson's beloved "The Music Man" that set hearts racing and toes tapping.
With dazzlingly high-kicking choreography by Peggy Hickey, the show was like an Edwardian-era perpetual motion machine that never ran out of gas. It featured a full orchestra (a rarity in these budget-pinching days) under Thomas W. Douglas that was especially crisp and clear, particularly during the brassy "76 Trombones" and overture.
And with a huge cast of more than 90 to populate 1912 River City, Iowa, director Mark Madama was a marvel at giving everyone interesting things to do and, more importantly, keeping them from tripping over each other. Madama, a theater professor at the University of Michigan back for his 37th MTW show, knows how to keep milling crowds from degenerating into aimless clumps.
New York-based Edward Watts, taking a leave from "The Fantasticks" to appear here, plays the handsome, charismatic con man Harold Hill. He is determined to fleece the stubborn Iowa hicks by selling them on a boys band, then skipping town before he has to make good on it. The tall, lanky Watts is oh-so-smooth as he glides around the stage, inciting and goading the good folks to protect their youth from the dangers of a new pool table in town.
The role will always belong to the legendary original, Robert Preston (preserved in the 1962 movie), but Watts unquestionably owns it for this production. It isn't a copy or an imitation because Watts' singing voice is stronger than Preston's in the love ballads. It's more of a tribute with fresh takes on familiar bits.
Jessica Tyler Wright, who went to Broadway after launching her career in MTW's ensemble 15 years ago, is back as Marian the librarian, a smart cookie who sees through Harold's glib ruse but comes to appreciate how he motivates the stodgy, truncated souls of her town, from bickering businessmen to gossipy housewives to even her own little brother, who hasn't gotten over their father's death.
Wright, who was in "Company" and "Sweeney Todd," has a lovely, impressive soprano that is between Broadway and opera. She isn't too strong for popular music, but she has an edge of quality that elevates everything she sings. Her "Till There Was You" and "My White Knight" are thrilling.
Justin Robertson, a favorite comic player from past MTW shows like "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," is a roly poly sidekick to Harold who gets his delightful showcase in the bouncy "Shipoopi," about the girl who's hard to get.
Longtime local theater power couple Timothy and Karen Robu are hilarious as the town's blustery, clueless mayor and his snooty, gossipy wife. Local veteran Deb Campbell gives a lovingly earthy Irish turn to the role of Marian's widowed mom, who fears her daughter will always listen to her head rather than her heart.
And ensemble members John Keckeisen, Arri Simon, Paul Jackson and Matthew Elliott as four feuding school board members stop the show every time they blend their voices into a cappella barbershop harmonies. They proved to be an opening night favorite.
Max Clayton as the town troublemaker Tommy and Eloise Kropp as the mayor's air-headed daughter Zaneeta led an energetic and enthusiastic ensemble through some spectacular and inventive dance production numbers. Clayton tosses (and catches, thankfully) Kropp and spins her like a pinwheel, making you hold your breath more than once. They are fearless and fun.
If You Go: "The Music Man"
What: Kick-off show of 40th anniversary season for Music Theatre of Wichita
Where: Century II Concert Hall
Additional performances: 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $22-$57 evenings, $20-$49 matinees (discounts for seniors, students, military and groups); call 316-265-3107 or visit www.mtwichita.org.
Parking: Some reserved parking available in Main Street library/Century II lot but because of overlap with Wichita River Festival, check www.mtwichita.org for additional parking areas.
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