Friday, May 30, 2008

Charismatic, Charming Music Man

John Coulbourn (Sun Media) gives The Music Man 4 out of 5 stars:

"It is a role that, for many, will always belong to the late Robert Preston.

"When Merdith Willson's The Music Man took Broadway by storm in 1957, Preston was cast as Professor Harold Hill -- a silver-tongued confidence man who falls in love and ends up whistling a whole new tune -- and he stole the heart of New York.

"That proved to be mere petty thievery, however, for when The Music Man became a movie in 1962 Preston stole the heart of the world.

"Every subsequent production of Wilson's musical has been measured in no small part by how the leading man's performance compares to Preston's.

"That would include the Stratford Festival production that opened on the stage of the Avon Theatre Wednesday, featuring Jonathan Goad as the unscrupulous 'Professor' who arrives in River City, Iowa circa 1912, determined to bilk its upright citizenry of a substantial chunk of hard-earned change.

"After convincing them that the town's young people are falling into delinquency, he promises redemption through a youth marching band -- and happily, just happens to be selling instruments, uniforms and a revolutionary new teaching method.

"Not everyone in River City is buying what he has to sell, however, and principal amongst his detractors is the pragmatic Miss Marian Paroo (played by Leah Oster), River City's librarian and herself a bit of a dab hand at music.

"But Marian's initial antipathy for the amoral Hill crumbles when her troubled little brother, Winthrop (young Christopher Van Hagen in a show-stealing turn) falls prey to Hill's charms.

"And while Hill has set out to seduce the sweet-voiced Marian, he instead finds himself seduced by her in turn, so that when the time comes to pull up stakes and flee, he has no choice but to stay and face the music instead.

"Goad's is a daring bit of casting, of course, taking an actor best known for his work in the classics (his Iago helped turn Othello into one of the hits of last year's season) and passing him off as a musical romantic lead.

"But it pays big dividends, for while Goad is no Robert Preston (and, really, what actor worth his salt would want to be?), he brings both talent and charisma enough to this performance that all but the most devoted Preston fans are almost certain to love him.

"In fact, it could be said that Goad is the major selling point in this production directed with an emphasis on charm by Susan H. Schulman and designed in ice-cream shades by Patrick Clark. In what is best described as a big-hearted production, Schulman and Clark create a pretty little world where rough edges have been smoothed by time and bruises washed with a healing balm of nostalgia -- a world, in fact, so free of menace that Hill faces no real danger in working his con. Sadly, he doesn't face a lot of romance, either, for while Oster has a glorious singing voice, as an actress, she seems content to be a pretty face.

"Still, it proves a brilliant showcase for Willson's music.

"Under the assured musical direction of Berthold Carriere, with choreography by Michael Lichtefeld, a cast that includes Lee MacDougall, a deliciously dippy Fiona Reid, Laird Mackintosh, Shawn Wright, Jonathan Monro, Marcus Nance, Eddie Glenn, Michelle Fisk and a host of others romps through a score that is two hours plus of pure charm, from the delicious Train Opening, through You Got Trouble, Goodnight My Someone, Lida Rose, Till There Was You and Gary, Indiana, ending up with the perennial charm of Seventy-Six Trombones.

"While it stops short of the kind of success that would leave devoted fans asking 'Who was Robert Preston?,' it is good enough and more to have musical theatre fans asking 'Who is this Jonathan Goad?'"

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