THEATER / JAN HERMAN : Irvine Light Opera Tunes In ‘The Music Man’

Bar for bar, “The Music Man” ranks among the most tuneful shows in Broadway history, not only for Meredith Willson’s inspired melodic touch but also for his ingenuity with lyrics. Few shows have so full a complement of clever songs. Still fewer have a score as replete with lasting ballads.

But the Irvine Civic Light Opera production of this flag-waving valentine to small-town America, which premiered over the weekend at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, has the same problem as the show’s traveling salesmen: It knows the territory but can’t make the sale.

There are many reasons for this, not least the stop-and-go pace of a first act that crawls fitfully to the intermission and clocks in at nearly 1 1/2 hours. After a striking first scene--set in a railway car and adroitly performed with bouncy verve by those straw-hatted, circuit-riding salesmen--what promises to be a winning revival fills up with disconcerting hesitations.

In a nutshell, this mom-and-apple-pie production has a tendency to die between the musical numbers. Whenever the huge amateur cast is called upon to act, the scenes lose conviction. Even so, the 45-member ensemble covers a lot of ground singing and dancing.


Apart from hallmark numbers that everyone has heard--"Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Marian the Librarian"--the first act alone has “Rock Island,” an indelible icebreaker styled on the a cappella chorus of an Iowa cattle auction; “Trouble,” an irrepressible sendup of fire-and-brimstone preachers; and “Pickalittle,” an inimitable satire on street-corner gossips.

There also are the first-act ballads, “Goodnight My Someone” and the equally beautiful, though less well-known “My White Knight"--both sung superbly by Susan Hoffman, who plays Marian and is this revival’s most notable performer. Also not to be overlooked is the endearing “Sincere,” sweetly delivered by a barbershop quartet that asks the question: “How can there be any sin in sincere?”

In the second act--which is shorter, tighter and speedier--the tunes include “Gary, Indiana,” a throwaway that survives as a novelty; “Till There Was You,” perhaps the most popular of Willson’s ballads; a lovely duet of counter melodies, “Lida Rose” and “Will I Ever Tell You”; and “Shipoopi,” a high-stepping showstopper.

Every “Music Man” depends heavily on the casting of the title character, Prof. Harold Hill. He is the charming charlatan who cons the townspeople of River City, Iowa, into buying musical instruments and uniforms for a marching band on the premise that his “think system” will teach their kids to play. If they hum Beethoven’s “Minuet in G” long enough, he assures them, they’ll be tooting Sousa on the trumpet in no time.


This “Music Man” has a serviceable Harold Hill in Dink O’Neal. Tall, pale and thin, he moves well and sings well enough unless he has to croon (when his nasal tone goes off-key). He also has a certain amount of charm but scant hint of that all-important charisma, without which the larger-than-life role of the insinuating, mesmerizing poseur seems undersized.

Marian Paroo, the spinsterish librarian, happens to be a piano teacher and doesn’t fall for Hill’s spiel about musical osmosis. But when she sees the bracing effect it has on her lisping younger brother, who’s become painfully shy since the death of his father, she falls in love with Hill. She also helps save him from the town’s wrath after his swindle is exposed.

Though the role of Marian is as hokey and predictable as the plot, Hoffman lends it enough credibility to keep the budding romance with Hill afloat if not aflame. Her soprano voice, moreover, shines like a torch.

What is most surprising about this production is how well the big, handsome dance numbers are executed. Ellen Prince, who modeled the lively choreography on Oona White’s original, must really have drilled the troupe. She also contributes some very appealing choreographic wit of her own.


As usual, Daniel R. Trevino’s direction provides telling details throughout that indicate how good the Civic Light Opera could be if only he had sufficient resources to hire more professionals and more time to spend in previews.

It wouldn’t hurt, though, if he could solve the technical glitches before then. This “Music Man” had too many on opening night Friday. Set and lighting cues went wrong with distracting regularity. And some scenes were too dimly lit even when the cues were right. You could barely see the faces, to say nothing of their expressions.

For all that, there were several scenic coups--in particular the pretty tableau of the footbridge--and several standout performances: by Howard Mango in a comic turn as Marcellus; Susan Tyra as Marian’s mother; Pattric G. Walker as the mayor’s wife; and the singing quartet of Ron Hoshi, Don Johnson, Jacey Squires and Olin Britt, who double as traveling salesmen. Last but far from least, the production did not stint on a pit band. Peter Fournier conducted a 20-piece orchestra.

‘The Music Man’


An Irvine Civic Light Opera production. Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Story by Willson and Franklin Lacey. Directed by Daniel R. Trevino. Choreographed by Ellen Prince. Starring Dink O’Neal and Susan Hoffman. Sets from the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera. Costumes from the Fullerton Civic Light Opera. Lighting design by Ted Ferreira. Sound design by Patrick Joseph and Tony Negrete. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2, through Sept. 28 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. Tickets: $21 to $28. Information: (714) 854-4646.