The Youth Musical Theater Company (YMTC), the Berkeley-based musical training and production company for aspiring theater musicians, artists and technicians, is reviving the smash 1957 Broadway hit, and equally popular 1962 movie based on the show, The Music Man.
It might be hard, at first glance, to appreciate the appeal of this corny, nostalgic recreation of an ostensibly innocent time in America, but both the professional directing team and the student leads are convinced that the piece is much more than “an overly romanticized caricature of a bygone time and place.”
With music, book, and lyrics by Meredith Willson, the story centers around a fast-talking, wisecracking traveling salesman Harold Hill (Micheal Lao), who plans to con the citizens of River City, Iowa into buying uniforms and equipment for their school band while looking to skip town at the earliest opportunity. Like Robert Burns’ mice and men, his best-laid plans “gang agley” when he falls for Marian, the town librarian, who is not easily won over as she sees through his scheme from the beginning. The classic score from Broadway’s Golden Age features such standards as “76 Trombones,” “‘Till There Was You,” and “Trouble (in River City).”
In the program notes, Artistic Director Jennifer Boesing and Musical Director David Möschler write that the story is one “in which people and things are not always as they appear … seemingly ordinary things become transcendent,” citing the transformation of a bickering group of school board members into a barbershop quartet “in perfect harmony;” a grieving, sad, little boy becoming an exuberant and hopeful musician; a defiant, lonely piano teacher finding someone who can help spread her passion for art to the rest of the community; and an oily con-man developing into an inspiration and a hero.
For the female lead, Berkeley resident 19-year old Lucy Swinson, who plays the librarian, Marian Paroo, the show may well resonate with today’s audiences.
“What I really like about this show is that even though it was written in 1957, it’s pretty feminist,” she said. “Marian is, like, super smart, always one step ahead of all the men in the show, which is not the case in all musicals of that era. That’s very cool. And also, how it suggests that art can change the world — or [laughing] at least Iowa. This town is full of not too happy, stubborn people and this man comes and brings art into their lives and the whole town lights up.”
Her male counterpart, Micheal Lao, confesses that he had not seen the full musical before a friend suggested he try out for the part of Harold.
“I was familiar with some of the songs without realizing they came from The Music Man,” he said. But once he had gained the part, he threw himself into the role big time, watching the two movie versions over and over again and following every movement, gesture, and nuance of Robert Preston, the original star who is said to have performed the role almost 900 times on the stage.
“And now,” he said, having memorized all the songs to the point where his co-workers may know them almost as well, “it has become one of my all-time favorite musicals.”
Micheal, now 21, has been acting “for as long as I can remember.” For him, the turning point of the drama is slow-building — the evolution of Harold as he starts to fall in love, not just with Marion but with the town he has stumbled into, becoming a big-brother figure to Marion’s painfully shy little brother, helping four strangers become a barbershop quarter, winning the hearts of the kids in the band, and gradually coming to the moment when he has the choice to skip town or get caught in his scam.
Spoiler alert! He chooses the latter.
Lucy pinpoints a more specific transformative event for her character. It is in the heart of the ensemble piece “Wells Fargo Wagon.” “Up until that point,” she notes, “Marion has tried really hard not to allow Harold to get under her skin, but at that instant she sees the effect he has on her brother who has been hitherto devastated by the death of their father two years earlier. Suddenly, he’s smiling, and laughing, and talking. Then, she’s omigosh, he (Harold) is not the man I thought he was.”
Like so many of the productions in its now 15-year history, this YMYC show draws on all the talents of its young (and some older) members, featuring a diverse cast and crew of over 40 performing arts students from cities throughout the Bay Area. The students, ages 12-21, work on stage and off, as actors, musicians, and technical theater apprentices, and are led by a team of professional directors and designers including Director Boesing, Music Director Möschler and Choreographer Pam Crane.
The show opens on March 7. Based on the rehearsal scenes this reporter observed, the ensemble performances, particularly the choreography, promise to be scintillating, and the voice, dance and acting abilities of the two leads, who carry the show, should blow audiences away.
And, although there is no overtly political message in this story, the idea that a con man may be open to empathy and a rapport with the community he has hitherto sought to bamboozle may just be enough to provide a small cheer in our own disconsolate times. If nothing else, a night of pure razzle-dazzle, toe-tapping fun is its own reward.