Friday, July 16, 2010


As a drama critic, summer doesn’t really begin for me until opening night of Trilogy Rep’s July production of a Broadway musical under the stars at the Pleasant Valley Park amphitheater in Basking Ridge.

Last night, the troupe opened Meredith Willson’s homage to small-town turn- of-the-20th-century life, The Music Man. Although rain the two day’s before prevented them from holding a technical and dress rehearsal, the more than 60 performers onstage acquitted themselves admirably. No, make that splendidly!

Led by seven main characters, the large cast moves fluidly around the rather shallow performance space with nary a bump nor fall--thanks to the masterful blocking by veteran Trilogy director Jaye Barre. This is especially important given Gillian Petersen’s complex choreography and the script’s need for crowd scenes at various junctures in the plot.

The Music Man's plot revolves around the efforts of a slick con-artist of a traveling salesman named Harold Hill, who blows into the Iowa hamlet of River City, ostensibly selling band instruments (and lessons and uniforms) as a way to keep the town’s youth out of trouble (“That’s spelled with T and it rhymes with P and that stands for Pool”) in the new billiard parlor that just happens to be owned by the town’s mayor. Hill is the type of man who gives traveling salesmen a bad name (as if they hadn’t one already: “Didya hear the one about the traveling salesman” is the beginning of many a bawdy joke) and he goes about his con with great style and verve. He wins over most of the townsfolk, most prominently Marion Paroo, the rather snooty librarian, only to find himself unable to leave town before he’s unmasked because he’s fallen for her, hard.

Willson’s music is a delight, a pastiche of soulful ballads, rousing marches and patter songs that rival those penned by Gilbert & Sullivan. In fact, the opening number, set in a railway coach, brims with fun and energy; the salesman talk and talk (“Whaddya talk, whaddya talk” is a refrain), all the while moving to the train’s rhythm. It’s a great taste of what’s to come.

Jim Neil is absolutely fantastic as Harold Hill, a part he’s longed to play since he saw the film as a kid (he did play it in 1990 and is thrilled to reprise his performance 20 years later). He may not be as sharply slick as the original, Robert Preston, in the role, but he has a heart, one that we can see emerging the longer he stays in River City. He smoothly gets his tongue around the words in the complicated lyrics of “Trouble” and “76 Trombones,” and is sneakily amorous serenading “Marion, the Librarian.” As his inamorata, the said Marion, Christie Oakes uses her soaring soprano to warble “Goodnight, My Someone” and “My White Knight” with the longing of a 27-year-old spinster. And while her feelings of superiority over her fellow River City citizens may be a tad off-putting, Oakes makes us feel sympathy for this voracious reader stuck in an Iowa backwater with no one to talk to about her interests.

As Mrs. Paroo, Anne King displays the concern of a mother who wants her daughter to be happy and does so with a credible Irish brogue, to boot. Frank Skoken is hilarious as Mayor Shinn, who utters malapropisms en masse as he attempts to retain business and political hold on his town, even as Hill alienates the citizens’ affection and attention. And Lauran Corson is a stitch as his wife, Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn (she’s always called by her three names), a wannabe dancer and truly awful singer; Corson has to pay against type—she’s really a talented soprano—but she has great fun doing so. And little Nathan Kohn is winning as the lisping Winthrop Paroo (played in the film by Ron Howard), hiding because he’s afraid to talk but finally bursting from his shell under Hill’s attention to sing “Gary, Indiana” very well.

Steven Kohn, Bill Corson, Alex Corson and Carl Bird—representing four men who have hated each other for 15 years—form a very credible barbershop quartet and harmonize beautifully in “Sincere” and the lovely “Lyda Rose.” Scott Six, as Hill’s confederate Marcellus Washburn, leads what looks like the entire town’s population in a rousing version of a nonsense song, “Shipoopi, accompanied by Petersen’s dizzying choreography. What fun!

Once again, Trilogy Rep has produced a first-rate production. And best of all, it’s free! Just gather the entire family, pack a picnic dinner, stow your blankets and lawn chairs in the car and head out to the hills of Somerset County to see The Music Man. What a wonderful way to experience theater with your loved ones and friends!

The Music Man will be performed July 15, 16, 22, 23 and 24 at 8:00 PM in Pleasant Valley Park on Valley Road (adjacent to the VA Hospital) in Basking Ridge. For information, call 908.204.3003.

NEXT PRODUCTION: William Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Macbeth, directed by Hank Barre. It will be performed in the amphitheater July 30 & 31, August 5,6 and 7. Its a good way to introduce the kids to the Bard and to let those who’ve read the play but have never seen it experience a live performance.