'The Music Man' brings good old-fashioned fun to the Red House

Review: The Red House's production of 'The Music Man' suffers from the small space but is a triumph overall thanks to a talented cast.

There’s little new to be done with The Music Man. The 1957 Broadway classic is as uncontroversial as apple pie and as populist as Frank Capra.

That said, there’s a lot of charm in its wholesome story of a con man redeemed by love and a small town lit up by the excitement he brings. It’s a natural fit for community theaters that can cast and stage it well. The Red House’s production only gets about halfway there on both counts, but that can’t totally negate the musical’s strengths.

Photo: Teri Dobrzynski, courtesy of the Red House Arts Center
Professor Harold Hill (Josh Rodriguez) explains himself to Winthrop (Kai Gesek) and Marian (Caitlyn Oenbrink).

The show takes place in the summer of 1912, as con man “professor” Harold Hill (Josh Rodriguez) makes a living selling expensive band instruments and uniforms to parents for a boys’ band, then skips town before they realize “he can’t tell one note from another.”

Hill arrives in River City, Iowa, where he meets some opposition in local piano teacher and librarian Marian Paroo (Caitlyn Oenbrink). But when she sees how Hill’s actions bring the town together and her shy brother Winthrop (Kai Gesek) out of his shell, she too is charmed by him. So much so, that she has reservations about exposing him for the fraud he is.

The production gets off to a rough start with its rendition of “Rock Island,” an energetic song which requires fast-talking actors to keep up the pace. Only a few of the performers are up to task, so the song feels strangely off-rhythm.

This is a problem that persists throughout a number of the more sprightly songs (“Ya Got Trouble,” “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little.”)The cast is more suited to driving standards like “76 Trombones” and “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” where the ensemble carries the melodies beautifully.

But those numbers have their own troubles. The Music Man is a great piece of spectacle, but it needs the proper arena for that spectacle. The Red House is a wonderful venue for some shows, but the space is too small for a large show like The Music Man.

Some of director Stephen Svoboda’s blocking is lively, but more often the town feels undersized and cramped. A scene of angry townspeople chasing after Hill seems particularly off, with characters racing back and forth across the space in what feels like a bad Benny Hill homage.

The Music Man also calls for scenes of characters marching triumphantly. A small space would benefit from truncating some of those moments, but instead Svoboda and company make the ensemble march in place with fixed smiles, which gives a creepy effect more attuned to David Lynch than Norman Rockwell.

The choreography is more confident when set in interior scenes. During “Marian the Librarian,” Hill tries to pick up Marian in the library, has a funny series of bits including a ladder and a book Hill constantly threatens to throw to the ground and disturb the peace.

The big dance number, “Shipoopi,” gives a nice showcase for Stephfond Brunson’s rascally charms as Marcellus, as well as Brunson and Andrea Colabufo’s choreography. There’s a bizarre tonal disjunction between the funk arrangement of the song and the rest of the show, but that’s mitigated by the chance it gives for the ethnically diverse cast to show their talents.

As Hill, Rodriguez is fine, if a bit too nice to play a cad. He fares better than most of the adult male cast members other than Brunson, including a mannered Dan Tursi as the pompous Mayor Shinn and an overblown Trevor Hill as Hill’s rival Charlie.

The younger performers are by-and-large strong, from Jamaal Wade as the confident Tommy Djilas to Kai Gesek as the self-conscious Winthrop. Nancy O’Connor is especially good as Amaryllis, the young girl who harbors a crush on Winthrop.

The show is at its best with the ladies. Syracuse BFA acting graduate Tamar Smithers is very funny as the mayor’s gossipy queen bee of a wife Eulalie, as is Kathy Egloff as Marian’s mother.

But the real highlight of the show is Caitlyn Oenbrink, at once astute and totally disarming as Marian. For The Music Man to work, one must believe Hill could fall for Marian and go from huckster to hero. Oenbrink has that quality, and that’s more than enough to power through the show’s occasional missteps.

The Music Man plays through Dec. 21. Tickets are $30 or $20 for members. Student rush tickets are available for $15 beginning one hour before each performance, given that there are still seats available. Rush tickets are also available online in advance for all Wednesday and Thursday performances.

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