Last night was our annual pilgrimage to Theatre Under the Stars in Stanley Park, something of an extra special outing this year not just because the weather cooperated, but also because we were introducing my sister and niece (visiting from Ontario) to Vancouver's venerable open-air institution. We chose The Music Man rather than The Titanic, because Richard and I have a special fondness for the Robert Preston/Shirley Jones film. And also because it's a meta-musical, the huckster Harold Hill literally striking a chord with the residents of River City, Iowa, despite knowing nothing about music himself.
What is so striking about writer/composer/lyricist Meredith Wilson's first Broadway outing (he also is the brains behind The Unsinkable Molly Brown, in addition to writing classical symphonies and composing numerous film scores) is how varied is the mix of musical styles and idioms, many of them seemingly antithetical to the musical theatre genre itself. For example, he builds much of the narrative around recitative and counterpoint and "in the round" orchestrations--which must be incredibly demanding to sing. Then, too, there are multiple moments of barbershop crooning from the quartet formed by Harold of the bickering school board men. It's both a bold and ego-busting mood for a composer, especially in a musical about forming a marching band, to leave off with all of the instruments in the pit and give things over entirely to a cappella harmonies for significant stretches at a time. Happily, in all cases the company was in excellent form and up to the tasks set for them.
And, to be sure, all of these seemingly "non-musical" elements are offset by the big production numbers, including "Seventy-Six Trombones," and of course the classic "(Ya Got) Trouble." As with that number, so too with the entire musical: its success depends, like his character's proposed swindle of River City's residents, on the charisma of the actor in the lead role of Harold Hill. Robert Preston's film version is, in most respects, unsurpassable. But LA and Toronto veteran Daren Herbert comes close. On stage for almost every number, Herbert's Hill is as effortless in his dulcet tones and nimble steps as he is in the guile behind each. It is a credit to Herbert that we not only believe in him in the role, but also in Hill's crazy scheme--first to dupe River City, then to seduce its uptight and on-to-him librarian, Marion. Samantha Currie provides fine support in the latter role. As does the entire cast, especially the many child actors.
As with past TUTS offerings, the evening did not disappoint.