“The Music Man” rarely fails to engage an audience, even when the material is presented in concert.
The Musical Theater Heritage production at Crown Center is a case in point. The show is performed with a small orchestra onstage and actors standing behind music stands singing into fixed microphones. This is standard procedure for MTH, and the approach works quite nicely with Meredith Willson’s 1957 classic about a faux band instructor flimflamming small-town residents in turn-of-the-century Iowa.
We tend to think of “The Music Man” as corny nostalgia, which it absolutely is. But it also happens to contain some of the most sophisticated, rhythmic lyrics ever written for a Broadway musical. Indeed, Willson tries to have it both ways in this show. He pits the charlatan Harold Hill and his accomplice Marcellus against the naive but decent residents of River City and gets us to root for the con artists.
And there’s a good reason to. River City stands in for the larger society and Willson implies that we need seductive snake oil salesmen as much as we abhor them. Like a shaman, Harold Hill unlocks the townspeople’s heads and allows them to dream.
This production is anchored by Tim Noland as Hill, the “professor” who claims that he can get untutored musicians to play simply by thinking about the melody. Noland is a strong singer and he performs energetically, although the character’s inner conflict — torn as he is between ripping off the gullible community and his genuine love for piano teacher Marian Paroo — is never clear. It’s a vague performance in some ways.
As Marian, the luminous Lauren Braton again demonstrates that she is among the best singing actors in Kansas City. She gives us a nuanced performance as Marian falls in love with Hill even though she knows who and what he is. And when Braton sings, time stops. Her voice could melt polar ice.
The show’s key comic roles — Mayor Shinn and his wife, Eulalie — are played aggressively and memorably by Hank Rector and Marilyn Lynch. Rector is a riot as the garrulous, simile-spewing mayor, and Lynch seems to be having a fine time as the delusional Eulalie.
The show is dotted with nice supporting performances. Michael Dragen as Marcellus and Kelly Main as Mrs. Paroo are particularly good. Young Brendan Hulla is charming and effective as the lisping Winthrop. And the barbershop quartet — Todd Miller, Keith Schweer, David Krause and Carter Combs — becomes an endearing running gag as the quartet repeatedly demands to see Hill’s credentials, only to be distracted by the pleasure of making music. The huge ensemble boosts the big choral numbers, notably “Ya Got Trouble” and “The Wells Fargo Wagon.”
Because of the format, director Sarah Crawford can’t really stage a rousing parade at the show’s conclusion, which showcases a reprise of “76 Trombones.” So the performance concludes with something closer to a whisper.
Willson’s songs, of course, are unforgettable once you hear them. Some are sublimely romantic, such as “Till There Was You.” And others are so eccentric that there’s nothing to compare them to. The opening number, the addictively rhythmic “Rock Island,” remains a masterpiece of wordplay.