By Bill Hirschman
There may never be as great a production of The Music Man as the 1957 lightning-in-a-bottle original with its full live orchestra, healthy budget, and career-making performances of Barbara Cook and Robert Preston.
But the Wick Theatre edition led by veteran Norb Joerder and starring John Tartaglia and Julie Kleiner is as satisfying and entertaining a holiday treat as you could ask for.
Jubilance pours from the stage any time the huge cast trumpets the beloved numbers from Meredith Willson’s brassy score or the ensemble is cavorting with whirling bodies and legs in cakewalk mode.
The multi-talented Tartaglia is a winning Harold Hill and we have been unable to resist resorting to superlatives every time Kleiner has graced a Florida stage, no less here as Marian the librarian.
Opening night was crippled by a malfunctioning sound system and computerized projections (and one actor who didn’t know his lines) but all of those aspects should be ironed out by the time you read this. Also, few regional companies can afford a live band with the 26 pieces necessary to do justice to the score, but in this case a muted-sounding digital soundtrack noticeably lacked the pizzazz and punch to stand in for 76 trombones. And while most of the evening hums along, the final scene sort of peters out.
Otherwise, Joerder has mounted an engaging evening with a troupe that is having a fine time delivering the bouncy score and gentle satire of small town life circa 1912.
The casting of Preston, as documented in the film version, was a miraculous accident. He was not the first choice and his earlier stage work never was in a musical considering his resonant but limited baritone. But after years of playing a hero’s morally compromised buddy in a score of studio films, he provided the key element that very few subsequent Harold Hills have had: a melding of charm and larceny. Hill is a daring con man who has spent his life cheating people of their savings and seducing their daughters before slipping out of town. The core of what makes the arc of the show work is his transforming the constipated town and, crucially at the same time, love transforming the rogue. Instead, he is usually miscast with a genial song and dance man. Matt Loehr, one of the finest such practitioners of his generation, nailed the charm in a stunning performance for the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in 2012; it just wasn’t Harold Hill up there.
So render credit to Tartaglia, an actor, dancer, puppeteer, director in multiple performing mediums. Best known for his Tony-nominated double roles in Avenue Q, he might not be the first name you’d think of for Harold Hill. But from the moment he starts to mesmerize the folks in River City, warning them “you’ve got trouble,” Tartaglia’s hard-won skill and innate charisma instantly wins over the audience as well as the townspeople. He delivers the patter talk songs with a smoothness that makes virtually every word comprehensible – a significant feat. Like everyone else on stage, Tartaglia and Hill are having a heck of good time and it’s infectious. And he makes Hill a believer in his own spiel: When he sings to the populace about the those trombones catching the morning sun with 110 cornets right behind, he holds out his arms gesticulating to some invisible vision he himself sees. Tartaglia nails one of my favorite lines in all musical theater when Winthrop accuses Harold of being a fake because there’s no band, to which Harold, replies with rare revealing honesty, “I always think there’s a band, kid.”
This marks the first time Targatglia has shared the stage with his mother Angie Radosh, one of Florida’s finest actresses in drama and comedy, who plays the mayor’s ditsy matron wife. Although he directed the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Beauty and the Beast with puppets last season, he hasn’t acted here because his family moved here after he was an adult.
Plus, we’ve been writing this same thing about Julie Kleiner since the first time we saw her. Willowy and winsome, she is easily one of the best musical theater actresses not just in this region but beyond. It’s not just that she has a sweet nectar of a high soprano, but that she acts through that voice. And beyond that, she acts every moment she is on stage even when she is not the locus of the scene, unlike many, many other actors. Watch her face as she reacts in the moment to what is happening elsewhere without pulling focus.
Indeed, one of this production’s strengths under Joerder are the dialogue scenes, especially the second act emotional climax on the footbridge. You can see Kleiner’s Marian knowingly sacrificing the truth for a love that she has no expectation will give her anything more than this moment and Tartaglia whose visage reflects the surprised revelation that first, such a brand of love is possible, and second, even more stunning to himself, that he has been caught up in it himself. The single most difficult thing for performers in musical theater to accomplish is to make character transformations credible when they only have a few seconds, if that, of acting shorthand to make the audience believe it. These two do.
Saved the expense of a band and renting costumes, the Wick has wisely invested in an unprecedented 39-member cast (allegedly even the children were paid). As a result, River City comes across as a full community in stage-filling numbers like “Iowa Stubborn” and “The Wells Fargo Wagon.”
Praise is due Wesley Slade as the grinning retired partner in crime Marcellus, rescued from his green makeup last month in Slow Burn’s Shrek. The supporting cast includes Ellie Pattison as the salt of the earth Mrs. Paroo, Larry Buzzeo as the competing salesman Charlie Cowell, and Kevin Reilley as the curmudgeonly mayor. Neo Del Corral alternates with Blake Rubin as Winthrop; Neo on opening night won the crowd over instantly with a strong voice and a huge smile, but he does need to work on Winthrop‘s lisp.
Zaneta, the mayor’s “Ye Gods” daughter is Alyssa Elrod and her beau Tommy Djilas, the “bad kid” from the wrong side of the tracks, is Jonathan Eisele whose dancing here and in other local productions is always smooth, energetic and sharp.
The precision work on “Pick-A-Little Talk-A-Little” is delivered by Grecian Urn Ladies Samantha Leibowitz, Dalia Aleman, Renee Elizabeth Turner, Coleen Pagano and Samantha Leibowitz. The bickering school board members who create the harmonious barbershop quartet are James A. Skiba (former Harold Hill understudying the role here), Ricky Pope, Mark Parello and David Nagy, usually serving other productions as musical director. This outing’s musical director Paul Tine help mold them into the seamless unit.
David Wanstreet, who choreographed the Wick’s Crazy For You, designed extended dance numbers which, as they were in a Broadway gone by, are just there for the audience to enjoy. They don’t advance the plot much, don’t reveal character, yet they are welcome interludes that somehow don’t stop the forward motion of the show, only enhance the experience.
The costumes, of course, are period pitch perfect which makes sense since they are a staple of Marilynnn Wick’s adjacent costume museum and rental business.
In all, a warm glow of a show for a winter season.
The Music Man plays through Dec. 28 at The Wick Theatre, 7901 North Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Performances 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday; 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Valet parking is no longer complimentary. Runs 2 1/2 hours with one intermission. Tickets $75-$85. For tickets, visit www.thewick.org or 561-995-2333.