Summer is here and what better way to spend the week of the Fourth with a production of The Music Man, Meredith Willson’s tribute to small-town America in the early twentieth century. An outgrowth from his memoir, But He Doesn’t Know the Territory, The Music Man celebrates life in the fictional tank town of River City, Iowa, which was loosely based on Willson’s home town of Mason City.
Ojai Art Center Theater’s production boasts a superlative cast led by one of the better Harold Hills we’ve seen, silver-haired Larry Toffler, who last played the flim-flamming traveling salesman in Ojai over two decades ago. Toffler plays Hill with effortless ease, as comfortable in the role as if it were a pair of well-worn bedroom slippers. Toffler does have some problems with the part’s vocal range, not quite hitting the high notes in “76 Trombones,” but more than makes up for it with his game-show host charm and a smooth-as-glass, charismatic performance.
Darrienne Lissette Caldwell, a private vocal coach in real life, plays snooty librarian Marian Paroo, whose heart melts when Hill shows sympathy for her lisping younger brother Winthrop. Caldwell’s operatic training was on display in such winning songs as “Till There Was You” and “My White Knight.” As Winthrop, 13-year-old Kai Maal-King is older than the role calls for, but his singing on “Gary, Indiana” and “The Wells Fargo Wagon” is spot on key, reflecting his own work as an assistant vocal coach with the Ojai Pixie Girls Chorus.
Bill Spellman, better known for his quarter century of building sets for OACT, plays language-challenged Mayor Shinn. At 85, Spellman admits to being “a bit creaky” as an actor but injects just the right amount of befuddled, language-mangling humor into his portrayal and draws loads of laughs with his pseudo-stentorian pronouncements (“Four score…..!”)
In other character parts, Laura Ring adds just the kind of Irish blarney required in the part of Mrs. Paroo and Marisa Miculian is a riot as the Balzac-hating, pretentious Mrs. Shinn. Exuberant performances are also turned in by Emily Redman Hall as pianola lady Ethel Toffelmier and an especially delightful Lily Giuliani as Mayor Shinn’s oldest girl, Zaneeta. Len Klaif, as bombastic anvil salesman Charlie Cowell, Benny Schurmer as the “wild kid” Tommy Djilas, and Andrew Eiden as Hill’s former sidekick Marcellus Washburn round out the second tier of key characters with effective performances.
The show’s two competing vocal groups: the school-board-turned-barbershop-quartet (Randy Crenshaw, Robert Challen, James Baker, and Louis Graham) and the gossipy, pick-a-little, talk-a-little ladies (Sheila McCarthy, Shannon Penrith, Emily Redman Hall, and Tracy Buckingham) are outstanding as well, with the show’s harmonious highlight pairing Caldwell’s sweetly performed “Will I Ever Tell You” with the barbershop quartet’s “Lida Rose.”
The production featured Jill Dolan and director Tracey Sutton’s period-perfect costume design and an excellent four-piece back stage band. The bass vamp in “Marian the Librarian” (played by Rob Moreno) is given greater urgency with the addition of Gavin O. Takase-Sanchez’s effective drum-and-cymbal cadence, giving the song a funky, street march feel that is propulsive as well as infectious.
The 28-member cast crowds the theater’s small stage on key ensemble numbers like “Iowa Stubborn” and “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” with terrific group singing on both songs.
With a show as varied and complex as The Music Man, with its rich assortment of characters, broad humor, and quaint language, it’s always hard to hit all the right notes, but OACT has managed to deliver an all-around outstanding and highly entertaining production. So don’t just sit there like a cote of Shropshire sheep, get on down to Ojai and see this show. Just as sure as the Lord made little green apples, you’ll have a whale of a time.
The Music Man plays at the Ojai Art Center Theatre through July 24. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar of Events.