Review: "The Music Man" at Starlight Theatre

“The Music Man” was first produced in December 1957, and in the 50 years since it has been revived at virtually every level of musical theater, from Broadway to community theater to junior high schools in towns as small as the fictional River City, Iowa.

Monday night, a crowd of about 4,500 attended opening night of another Starlight Theatre production of Meredith Willson’s most famous work. And what they got was a solid, satisfying performance.

Director Jack Allison and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld wisely played it safe and straight, taking no big risks. Instead, they stick to a formula that works: Let letting Willson’s stylish music, especially the large dance numbers, do most of the work.

Willson’s well-known, early 20th-century tale follows the antics of swift-talking Professor Harold Hill (played by Jim Walton), a serial con man who plans to bilk the uptight citizens of River City by taking their money in exchange for something he can’t deliver: a boys’ marching band. He hides his musical illiteracy behind a fake system he has invented: The students will learn to play their instruments by thinking their way through the Minuet in G.

As his ruse evolves, Hill enlists the help of the town’s dowdy librarian and piano teacher, Marian Paroo (Kate Fisher). As he is wooing and conning her, however, he delivers her younger brother, Winthrop (Sam Brown) from his profound shyness.

Hill’s plan to take the money and run is foiled by his own weakness for Marian, however. So he misses his chance to flee and ends up captured, bound and sentenced to a little tar-and-feathering. It all ends well, though. Somehow the kids figured out how to play their instruments, and Hill is freed as a hero.

Walton has played Hill before and it showed. All three facets of his performance (acting, singing, dancing) were polished and effective, though it wouldn’t hurt if he added a few more drops of snake oil into Hill’s personae. Fisher’s greatest strength is her splendid singing voice, which she showcased during several songs, none better than “Will I Ever Tell You.” Brown is one of three local youngsters with lead children’s roles, and he played Winthrop just right. He also nailed his big solo: “Gary, Indiana.”

One of the few townspeople who doubts Hill’s story from the beginning is the gruff and bumbling Mayor Shinn, played perfectly by Ray Demattis. Nancy Johnston was also good as his self-involved wife, Eulalie. The lighting and stage designs deserve a good word, too, especially for the scene at the foot bridge..

For anyone (like me) who hasn’t seen “The Music Man” either live or on film in a few decades, this Starlight performance is a worthwhile reminder of a how many great songs are in the soundtrack, including “Till There Was You” ( which the Beatles famously covered) .

For the most part, Monday’s two-hour and 40-minute performance (including a 20-minute intermission) went off without a major technical error. There were one or two mild audio glitches, a dropped lyric and a few dropped hats, and Starlight’s resident bat made its rounds a few times. Otherwise, the show went on smoothly.

Monday’s performance began not with the show’s overture but with a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by a nearly four-dozen-member men’s vocal group singing in the style of a barbershop quartet. It was an appropriate start to a show that has become a famous piece of Americana.

“The Music Man”

Where: Starlight Theatre

When: Monday, July 28 (through Aug. 3)

Attendance: 4,500 approx.

Tickets: 816-363-7827