The Music Man
At the Paramount Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Aurora –“The Music Man” can stand on its artistic merits as a classic American musical but it may be especially gratifying to bask in its old time innocence when today’s audiences face the stresses of living in a complicated 21st century. It’s fun for 2 hours and 35 minutes to sit in a beautiful historic theater and bask in the nostalgia of a simpler bygone time.
The Paramount Theatre, which goes from triumph to triumph, is presenting a splendid revival of “The Music Man,” freshening up the show without violating its basic verities—its broad character types, wonderful score, uncomplicated humor, and strong feeling for time and place. But this is a show directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell, a top brand name in area musical theater who never disappoints.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren
“The Music Man” is the work of Meredith Willson, who harnessed his memories of growing up in Mason City Iowa near the turn of the last century to write the story and compose the score. Mason City becomes River City. It’s portrayed as a small, tightly knit town roiled by the appearance of Professor Harold Hill, who travels throughout the Midwest selling musical instruments to the parents of a community’s children, promising to organize and lead a boys band. But Hill (real name Greg) is a swindler who takes the money for the instruments (and instruction books and sometimes uniforms) and skips town.
Hill is a smooth talker who hoodwinks the naïve River City townspeople with his persuasive line of patter, until he encounters the hard-nosed Marian Paroo, the town librarian who smells a rat in the charismatic visiting professor. The show eventually turns into the uplifting saga of a con man (Hill) reformed by the love and trust of a good woman (Marian the librarian). Corny? Yes. Obvious, Definitely. Great entertainment? Absolutely!
The opening scene portrays a group of traveling salesmen talking in time with the rhythm of the trail that takes them to River City. There is no music, just a roundelay of chatter among the salesmen, staged with exceptional animation by Rockwell. The novelty of the scene introduces us to Harold Hill and the show is off and running.
In short order, Hill makes his mark with the town citizenry, except for the bullying blowhard Mayor Shinn. Hill convinces the locals that it needs a boys band to counter the corrupting temptations of the time, as recounted by Hill in “You Got Trouble.” That’s the first in a sequence of irresistible songs, some humorous patter and some romantic ballads, climaxed by the show’s major hit, “Seventy-six Trombones.” Hill and Marian become romantically involved, though at first the devious professor cottons up to her cynically for her support in the boys band caper. Marian goes over to Hill’s side because the man is able to break through the reserve of Winthrop, Marian’s little brother, withdrawn into himself as he grieves for his deceased father.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren
By the time the final curtain descends, we have enjoyed songs like ”Goodnight My Someone,” “The Sadder but Wiser Girl (with some of the sharpest lyrics in 20th century musical theater), “My White Knight,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” “It’s You,” “Lida Rose & Will I Ever Tell You,”, “Gary, Indiana,” and “Till There Was You.” Rockwell has choreographed some sprightly production numbers, especially the rollicking “Shipoopi,” exuberantly executed by a young and talented chorus led by Rhett Guter and Laura Savage.
The comedy in “The Music Man” invites easy laughs but Rockwell walks a delicate line to avoid buffoonery, especially in the rendering of the ladies of the town led by the cartoonish wife of the mayor, Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn, just one of the hayseed names of the River City locals, along with Ethel Toffelmier and Alma Hix, among others. Rockwell especially distinguishes herself in choreographing the sappy modern dance routines presented in the name of high art by the mayor’s wife and her acolytes. This may be the first time I’ve seen their silly dances presented with intelligence along with comedy.
If there is an innovation in the Paramount revival, it’s in the striking performance by Stef Tovar as Harold Hill. Tovar has been one of the sturdiest actors in Chicagoland theater for two decades, often in edgy roles in serious straight plays. His Harold Hill is a persuasive con man, without conscience, luring the gullible River City townspeople into his web with his oily charm. Tovar plays Hill as a slime until the final scenes when Marian converts him. There is no romantic leading man about Tovar’s character until the show is nearly over. The interpretation casts a realistic light on Hill, opening up the role without violating the humorous and romantic thrust of the story. Tovar even displays a decent singing voice in a role that makes very few demands on the singing skills of the performer.
The vocal honors are carried triumphantly by Emily Rohm, who performs the show’s romantic numbers radiantly. Willson had the bright idea of injecting a barbershop quartet as a kind of Greek chorus into the narrative, and the foursome—Roger Anderson, Sean Effinger-Dean, Matthew Jones, and Rob Dorn)—knock of their four-part harmony with precision and charm.
The ensemble features several veterans of area theater. Don Forston has a fine time as the blustery Mayor Shinn. Mary Ernster is a delight as Marian’s Irish-brogue mother. Michael Aaron Lindner plays Hill’s sidekick Marcellus Washburn and Liz Pazik is Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn. They are abetted by a solid complementary cast of singer/dancer/actors. Special mention goes to Johnny Rabe, the best Winthrop I’ve ever seen. Master Rabe has the stage presence, singing pipes, and acting chops of a seasoned adult thespian.
The physical production includes a massive wardrobe of period costumes designed by Melissa Torchia that nails the story’s 1912 time frame. Kevin Depinet’s scenic design flexibly takes us from place to place in River City, interrupted on opening night by a show-stopping malfunction that was kind of fun for the audience. Jesse Klug designed the atmospheric lighting and Jeff Dublinske the sound. And props to the large, talented pit orchestra led by Michael Mahler.
A contrarian might view “The Music Man” as a knock on the middle America of 100 years ago. The town politician is a heavy handed boor, the women are gossiping biddies, and there is a streak of narrow mindedness, sexual repression, class warfare, and ethnic intolerance in the town. But those serious bits are mere garnish for a refreshed joyful entertainment presented by the Paramount.
“The Music Man” runs through February 3 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Boulevard. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $34.90 to $46.90. Call 630 896 6666 or visit www.Paramount/Aurora.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars.
Contact Dan: Zeffdaniel@yahoo.com January 19, 2013
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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
At the Paramount Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Aurora – In just two productions the Paramount Theatre has elevated itself to the top of the class in Chicagoland musical theater, in company with Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace and the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. The Paramount opened with an ecstatically reviewed revival of “My Fair Lady” in September and is now firming up its reputation with a delectable staging of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
success of the Paramount productions must be credited to artistic director Jim
Corti, one of the area’s preeminent music theater directors and choreographers.
His shows are housed in the 80-year old Paramount Theatre, an impressive building
in downtown Aurora.
The cavernous interior seats 1,888, easily the largest of the non-Loop playing spaces in Chicagoland. The auditorium is impressive but not overwhelming, with the décor a tasteful throwback of the glamorous movie and vaudeville palaces of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The handsome and spacious interior puts the spectator in the proper mood to enjoy something special on the stage, and Corti’s operation this far has not disappointed. Corti must have received a mandate to spend whatever it takes to produce top quality shows. The first two musicals in the Paramount’s new history reflect very deep budgetary pockets and every dollar is well spent.
“Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoast” is one of the great audience shows of the past 50 years. It was created in England by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) in 1968 and has been repeatedly revised since. I’ve seen the show numerous times and every production is a bit different. The director and choreographer have the freedom to personalize the staging while remaining faithful to the material’s antic and comic spirit. That’s red meat for Stacey Flaster at the Paramount. Flaster has steadily ascended the ladder of top directors and choreographers locally and regionally and her creativity glows in “Joseph” flows from scene to scene with bouquets of inventive touches.
The show is a whimsical and flippant (but not irreverent) riff on the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. The story is told almost entirely in song, ranging from country music and doo wop to French cabaret and calypso. The Egyptian pharaoh is an Elvis Presley clone. A narrator serves as the audience’s guide through the storyline, assisted periodically by a children’s chorus. The entire musical has a “What will they do next?” feeling that keeps the audience surprised and entertained from number to number. But there is a theatrical savvy and professionalism in the Webber-Rice writing that sustains the flow of wit and comedy steady from the opening scene to the Mega Mix at the end, maybe the longest and the most exuberant curtain call in modern musical history.
Brian Bohr plays the title character. Bohr is a blond hunk now in his senior year at Northwestern University. He conveys an innocence and charm that puts one in mind of Donny Osmond’s performance in the role in Chicago decades ago. And when the bare-chested Bohr sings the stirring “Close Every Door” at the end of the first act, the girls in the audience squealed with pleasure. Bohr may be a heartthrob in the making.
Lara Filip, with her potent voice and ingratiating stage presence, makes an outstanding narrator. The large supporting cast performs beautifully as an ensemble, enhanced with a few notable stand-alone moments. James Earl Jones III (who has left a trail of terrific musical performances from one end of our area to the other over the past two seasons) sells the calypso number with irresistible gusto. As Levi, Cory Stonebrook lead’s Joseph’s brothers in the mock country music lament “There’s One More Angel in Heaven.” And George Keating delivers a typically droll performance as both Joseph’s father, Jacob, and the hedonistic Potiphar in Egypt. Whoever coached the children’s chorus deserves highest commendation. Those kids really sing beautifully together.
The performances are all first rate but it’s the shrewd theatrical mind of Stacey Flaster that makes the evening a triumph. Flaster has assembled a chorus of 10 singing, dancing, (and sexy) young ladies to execute her swinging and clever choreography. There is an apache dance featuring Emily Rogers that involves a life-sized dummy which is a total hoot. The chorus performs throughout the evening with an energy and precision that would reflect honorably on any musical passing through downtown Chicago from Broadway.
The show’s production values are outstanding. The theater obviously possesses the highest quality modern technology, allowing Jesse Klug (lighting) and Ray Nardelli (sound) to accomplish some impressive effects. Melissa Torchia’s costume designs are a riot of color and variety, from mock ancient Egyptian designs to modern cheerleader outfits. Kevin Depinet’s functional set design is dominated by giant geometric arches that look like the base of an ancient pyramid.
A couple of very minor criticisms. The “Those Canaan Days” number runs a bit long and a gets bit too broad in his comedy, but its apache dance is worth any excesses. Vasily Deris is a little portly to channel Elvis, but he works hard as the pharaoh and the audience ate him up.
“Joseph” is a can’t-miss family show but the family members shouldn’t extend below the age of about six. There were some toddlers in the opening night audience who couldn’t have made anything of the hip, sassy humor of the show, even if their brothers and sisters were performing in the children’s chorus on stage.
The chief criticism of “Joseph” is the brevity of its run. All four shows in the Paramount schedule run for barely three weeks. Productions at this level of accomplishment deserve to run for months.
“Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat” runs through November 20 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Boulevard. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $34.90 to $46.90. Call 630 896 666 or visit www.ParamountAurora.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars.
Contact Dan at email@example.com. November 2011
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