Farmer's Branch — What’s not to love about The Music Man, Meredith Willson’s first musical, and winner of the 1957 Tony Award for best musical when it opened on Broadway in 1957?
Now the Firehouse Theatre stages an enchanting production of Willson’s playful, satirical vision of small town America in 1912. Director Bruce R. Coleman, an accomplished Dallas director, designer and playwright for nearly 40 years, pulls together a top-notch cast of 30 actors and 10 solid musicians, led by music director Bryce Biffle, to light up the town in the dog days of summer.
I squeezed into the ice-cold, sold-out Saturday night performance on opening weekend, and came away humming “Lida Rose” and harboring a fresh, feverish crush on Prof. Harold Hill, the seductive swindler and musical instrument salesman who shows up in River City, Iowa utterly unable to read even a note of music, but mesmerizing in his ability to convince ordinary people they can sing and dance and even play in a band!
Played by gray-eyed, vibrato-enhanced tenor Max J. Swarner, this Harold is the kind of funny, flirty, sleight-of-hand man that makes every woman want to be his “Sadder-But-Wiser Girl.” Even prim and knowing Marian, the librarian and piano teacher, played by slender, elegant soprano Mindy Bell, is taken in by this sly con artist. Of course, this wiser gal sees through her guy’s brassy sales pitch to the solid gold gift of confidence in their own creativity he injects into his customers, along with his scam. When Swarner sings “Marian the Librarian” in the hush of the library, while the ensemble shuffles and shushes around him, he’s so close to his prey that he’s literally breathing notes right into her mouth. I’ll take whatever he’s selling.
Swarner’s crisp, endearing performance in the lead and Bell’s intelligent warmth as Marian set the bar for the rest of the cast, and this troupe delivers the musical goods all night long. From a rich barbershop quartet, wherein you can hear each singer’s voice blend in four-part harmony in “Lida Rose” and “Goodnight, Ladies,” to the bouncing talk of the male ensemble in “Rock Island” and the syncopated patter of women’s voices in “Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little)”, the enunciation, rhythmic pace and melodic rendering are right on the mark.
The sharp, enthusiastic ensemble, led by Swarner’s prancing Hill, conjures a huge marching band in “Seventy-Six Trombones”, while Marian’s signature love song “Goodnight, My Someone,” is the same tune sung to waltz time. Harold and Marian generate some real heat when they deliver the duet in counterpoint, reminding us that allure thrives on such push and pull. Bell’s expressive “Till There Was You,” brought tears to my eyes, especially when escape-artist Harold realizes he’s “caught his foot in the door for the first time.” That’s love for ya’.
Supporting characters are solid. Sally Soldo is a feisty Irish Mama, urging Prudish Marian to make the first move, for heaven’s sake. Doug Fowler is hilarious as the blowhard Mayor Shinn, and Brianna Clancy is all galloping grace as his wife, leading her newly formed Grecian Urn Dancers in a funny spoof of (early) modern dance.
All the children appearing the night I saw the show were a delight. Parker Niksich is Marian’s shy, lisping young brother Winthrop, who learns to sing “Gary, Indiana” with vaudeville aplomb. (Nicolai Lilly plays the role on alternate nights.) Pretty, watchful Lauren Schovan plays the one-finger exercise perfectly as Amaryllis, Marion’s piano student. (Georgia Colclasure plays the role on alternate nights.)
Biffle and his 10-man orchestra, hidden at the top of David Walsh’s pastel, suggestive small-town set, fill up the 170-seat house with a big overture and strong accompaniment for the singers. Hope Cox’s nicely fitted period costumes are a visual treat, and move beautifully in choreographer Bethany Lorentzen’s vigorous and well-designed dance numbers, modeled on Onna White’s original Broadway choreography. The dancers, young and old, executed the athletic turns with agility and skill, especially considering so many bodies were leaping and kick up their heels on a tight stage.
The term “community theater” may once have suggested a cast of ardent amateurs brought together by the drama teacher in a small-town rec center to “put on a show.” That’s not the case anymore with several North Texas theaters, Firehouse included. Looking over the program notes, I realized that virtually every member of this big cast has at least a paragraph of solid credits in university programs, professional and community theaters around Dallas-Fort Worth and farther afield. Swarner is an Actor’s Equity member; and some of the accomplished children list agents.
A director like Coleman has not only a huge talent bank of relative newbies and veteran actors and musicians to draw from, but also the experience to cast a particular show with just the right magical mix to not just “put on a show,” but land a terrific evening of theater.
The Music Man at The Firehouse Theatre is just that sweet kind of night.