A-way out west in Aurora, Illinois, situated halfway between the bucolic Gary, Indiana, of the song of the same name, and the fictional River City, Iowa, inspired by composer-author Meredith Willson' real-life hometown of Mason City, one finds the stunning, Venetian Art-Deco Paramount Theatre, awe-inspiring with its 1,888 seats. And in that very same theater, the crown jewel of an Illinois river town that's been renovated with money given by folks like the Caterpillar tractor company, a crowd of city slickers and earnest rural theatergoers gathered this past Friday night, to witness a lovely looking, lovely sounding revival of "The Music Man," a crown jewel of Broadway's Golden Age and a genuine love letter to small-town America.
But this show, which I've seen and reviewed before, is more than that. In the Paramount's production, directed and choregraphed by Rachel Rockwell, the show lives and breathes in the very music that a con man and flim-flam artist, "Professor Harold Hill," uses to sell band instruments, uniforms and instruction booklets to the parents of young boys he knows he cannot really teach. Music is everywhere, in the men who form the town's school board, in the part-time job of the town's librarian, young Marian Paroo, in the town's busybody married ladies who become dance dilettantes, in the dancing high school kids, in the shy young Winthrop, he of the lisp and the sad-sack demeanor and dreams of a shiny cornet.
The whole town falls for Hill's pitch and vision of a boys' band because, as the show's score shows, music is amazing! Under the baton of Michael Mahler's 18-piece orchestra, it struts, lilts, interweaves and emerges from the rhythms of train cars, whistling and childhood piano awkwardness. Music is the air that we breathe. And that's why the show's climax works. It's the triumph, not of blind parental devotion for anything that little tykes put their minds to, but of the hope that the souls, the minds and the hearts of the young can and will be elevated by any encounter with music, even one orchestrated by a man who doesn't really understand his own true gifts.
Hill is played at the Paramount by Stef Tovar, an actor of great likability and musicality, but one with a somewhat contemporary acting approach and with a higher, lighter voice than one usually associates with this role. The comedy certainly works, and his dramatic showdown with Winthrop in the second act works as well. But for much of the show, this Harold is nice, not flashy, and this makes for a unique, unexpected situation. Tovar is watchable, but not insistently so. He grows on you, like he does on the unsuspecting but suspicious Marian. Let me know what you think when you see it.
Maid Marian Paroo, the lady in question, is played by the placid period beauty that is Emily Rohm, one of Chicago theater's leading legitimate sopranos and one who simply must be seen and heard in this role. Indeed, if you close your eyes, you would swear that role originator Barbara Cook herself is in the room, so bright and pleasing is Rohm's Broadway soprano sound. Her acting is spot on, too, hitting the touchpoints of character progression nicely. Rohm is so good, one wonders what Broadway revival star Rebecca Luker could possibly have brought to the role that Rohm hasn't. If you know, please let me know.
The star of the recent Broadway production of "A Christmas Story," 12 year old Naperville native Johnny Rabe, sings exceptionally well as Winthrop, with a clarion Broadway belt and every word intact. He's a little old for the role, but no one cares. It's a treat to have him here! (While we're on the subject of children, the two little girls in the show, Peyton Shaffer and Emily Leahy, can do round-offs like nobody's business.)
The large ensemble cast of 34 (yes, there are 34 performers here!) sounds fantastic in the big choral climaxes. The barbershop quartet of Rob Dorn, Matthew R. Jones, Sean Effinger-Dean and Rob Anderson, is mostly wonderful, though they are saddled with a few unmotivated crossovers that are vestiges of the show's "in one" origins. The dancing, led by Rhett Guter and Laura Savage as the secondary love couple Tommy and Zaneeta, is exuberant and balletic and all-American. And the character actors, led by Mary Ernster as the old-world Mrs. Paroo, Don Forston as the blustery Mayor Shinn and Liz Pazek as Eulalie ("Trickle, Trickle, Trickle") Mackecknie Shinn, carry a surprisingly large part of the show's dialogue. Michael Aaron Lindner is Marcellus, pulling off a role that is probably too high for him with panache and journeyman aplomb.