Threats of trouble arouse the small town of River City, Iowa in Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey’s classic 1957 Tony Award-winning musical comedy “The Music Man,” but there are no signs of distress in Wright State University’s fantastic presentation running through April 3 in the Festival Playhouse.
In this exceedingly charming tale about a con artist reawakening love and possibility within a vulnerable community in July 1912, a first-rate Nathan Robert Pecchia leads the way as Professor Harold Hill, a traveling salesman who decides to go back into his bag of tricks during a seemingly slow period. When all else fails, the creation of a boy’s band is a quick fix for Harold and Pecchia commandingly stirs the pot with deliciously assertive glee. In fact, his rip-roaring rendition of “Trouble,” a rapid-fire, talk-sung gem of commotion, disbelief and hysteria, truly mesmerizes as intended. A few scenes later, he returns with whirlwind gusto to address, in joyfully over-the-top fashion, the sight of “Seventy-Six Trombones,” which finally delivers the gullible town firmly in the palm of his shady hand. Without Pecchia’s confidence, magnetism and vocal prowess, attributes which served him well last season as a member of WSU’s equally thrilling and startlingly under-attended regional premiere of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” this “Music Man” would have been completely lopsided, which is always a huge risk for any organization producing what is essentially one of the most formidable star vehicles in the musical theatre canon.
Elsewhere in River City, Emsie Hapner provides strong moments of warmth and frustration as the terse, talked-about spinster Marian Paroo, a librarian who seeks to destroy Harold but ultimately recognizes him as her soul mate. Some of Willson’s numbers challenge Hapner’s vocal range, particularly the gorgeous soprano grandeur of “My White Knight,” but her grounded interpretation is not short of nuance or credibility overall. As Mrs. Paroo, Cassi Mikat, a recent semifinalist in the national Lotte Lenya Competition who gave one of 2015’s best performances in “Sondheim on Sondheim,” supplies feisty Irish earthiness opposite Hapner in “Piano Lesson” and “If You Don’t Mind My Saying So.” Eric Pettit, a memorable Randy Parker in La Comedia Dinner Theatre’s recent regional premiere of “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” is absolutely endearing as the introverted Winthrop. William Mendleson (an aptly befuddled Mayor Shinn) and Caitlin Geisser (beautifully costumed in pink and turquoise as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn) are a humorous duo. Knockout dancer Dakota Mullins (in a breakthrough portrayal of Tommy Djilas) and lovely Meredith Zahn (Zaneeta Shinn) tremendously conjure the spirit of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in “Marian the Librarian,” stunningly choreographed with exuberant chaos and elation by Dionysia Williams. The bubbly Kyle Sell (Marcellus Washburn) is a winning sidekick for Pecchia and well-paired with the goofy Emily Chodan (Ethel Toffelmier). As Harold’s enraged rival salesman Charlie Cowell, a wonderfully agitated Ben Tracy brings fiery intimidation to his pivotal testimony late in Act 2. The cohesively harmonic team of Elis Davis (Olin Britt), Jordan Adams (Oliver Hix), Connor Lysholm (Ewart Dunlop), and Kyle Krichbaum (Jacey Squires) are outstanding as the bickering school board-turned-barber shop quartet. Grace Leisch (Mrs. Squires), Lauren Everett (Alma Hix), and Madeline Vaughn (Maud Dunlop) perfectly contribute to the giddy amusement of “Pick-A-Little Talk-A-Little.” Emma Fry (Amaryllis), George Heddleston (Constable Locke/Conductor), Kyle Miller, Zach Fretag, Madeline Musico, Allie Jackson, Abbey Fry, Everett Jones, Philip Stock, Cody Westbrook, Danielle Bessler, Brynnan McNeill, Joey Kennedy, and Taylor Patrick are noteworthy.
Director Marya Spring Cordes, staging an achievement on par with her amazing “Grand Hotel” in 2013, once again proves her strengths for navigating huge, ensemble-driven pieces.
Whether molding believable idiosyncrasies among the townspeople or providing a new perspective for Charlie in an inspired moment in the final scene, her vision is sound and inviting. In addition to the rollicking opener “Rock Island,” her handiwork specifically hits the mark in her heartfelt execution of “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” an upbeat testament to the power of expectancy which exceptionally resolves as a tear-jerking reminder that dreams can become reality. The aforementioned Williams, so in sync with Cordes, also shines by evoking legendary choreographers Onna White and Michael Kidd in “Seventy-Six Trombones” and giving “Shipoopi” a very spirited hoedown. Cordes’ top-notch artistic team includes scenic designer Pam Knauert Lavarnway, lighting designer Jacob Brown, costumer Christie Peitzmeier, sound designer Emily Hutton, dialect coach Deborah Thomas, and music director Scot Woolley.
Showcasing WSU’s musical theatre program to the fullest, “Music Man” brings the organization’s mainstage season to a rousing finish.
“The Music Man” continues through April 3 in the Creative Arts Center Festival Playhouse of Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are March 25, 26, April 1 and 2 at 8 p.m., March 26, 27, April 2 and 3 at 2 p.m., and March 31 at 7 p.m. Act One: 90 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $22 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500 or visit wright.edu/theatre-tickets.