By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Meredith Wilson’s immortal The Music Man has been playing for the past two weeks at the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts in Kenner, but unlike the signature song from Act One (“Ya Got Trouble”), this specific production has run without much of a hitch.
It didn’t seem that way at the beginning of the run when the scheduled non-union orchestra was pulled at the last minute due to a number of factors. In a highly unusual and controversial decision, director and co-artistic director Kelly Fouchi decided the musical track would sound better and more effectively enhance the singers’ and dancers’ performances.
She was not wrong.
The musical track was quite adequate to accompany the more than three dozen performers on stage at any one time. It was a bold decision that clearly had to be made, but can be prevented in the future by ensuring that union musicians – regarded as among the best in the country – are hired to do future shows.
Kelly Fouchi had a very personal stake in ensuring the success of this, Rivertown’s season opener. For starters, her husband Marc Fouchi, is playing the title character of Professor Harold Hill, the flim flam man whose racket involves selling band uniforms and instruments to the townspeople of River City, Iowa for their children’s boys band.
Also, both Savannah and Tess Fouchi, Kelly and Marc’s offspring play ensemble roles of the younger townfolk. So, it is very much a family affair.
Kelly Fouchi might be chastised for such nepotism were it not for the fact that Marc does play the role so very well. Indeed, the entire cast from adults to children is very well cast. That not only reflects on the director, but also on the high standard Rivertown maintains in its productions.
The dancing and choreography is also better than what many would expect from a musical that is now 61 years old. Ashley Morand is given credit for that, but with Kelly Fouchi’s experience as a dancer, choreographer and owner of a dance studio, the big picture was no doubt shaped with a vision from the top down.
Watching all the moving parts come together with such a massive cast is impressive, but in almost every major singing and speaking role, the casting choices are terrific.
Nowhere in this entire production is that more evident than in the selection of the female lead. Rachel Looney plays Marian Paroo, the prim and proper librarian who at first is the target of the charming and mesmerizing Professor Hill.
The role originally played on Broadway by the legendary Barbara Cook was her first smash and her renditions of Wilson’s “My White Knight,” “Will I Ever Tell You?” and “Till There Was You” were noted for their expressiveness and clarity. Looney’s classically trained voiced bursts through the Rivertown stage with power and grace. She has amazing poise and her voice is nothing short of exquisite. It is hard to believe that this is her Rivertown debut or that she shall also debut in her first New Orleans Opera Association role in their upcoming October production of Rameau’s Pygmalion.
Looney was also recently seen and heard in the Summer Lyric at Tulane’s centennial salute to Leonard Bernstein, where she memorably played the part of Maria in the “Tonight” sequence. Her selections as Marian, Maria and La Statue Animée in the opera signal the emergence of a vocalist and actor who is destined for many great parts to come.
In addition to the leads, the supporting character roles also demonstrate great strength and ability. As Marcellus Washburn, Adam Segrave is a sheer delight whose 11th hour showpiece, “Shipoopi” is bursting with energy. David Hoover as stuffy Mayor Shinn shows us why we never tire of his ability to own a role so easily.
The Southern Tradition Quartet provide the Barbershop Quartet singing originally sung on the Broadway stage by The Buffalo Bills. The quartet (Johnnie Oufnac, Joe Jacquat, Hansen Eschete and Karl Hanson) performs as members of the quarreling school board, who sing harmoniously, but can never agree in real life. Their work in “Ice Cream/Sincere,” “Goodnight Ladies” “It’s You” and “Lida Rose” was spot on and they integrated well with the ladies chorus of “Pick-a Little, Talk a Little” and Looney’s turn in “Will I Ever Tell You?”
Cayden Pecoraro as Winthrop does quite well as does Jan Schulter, who returns to the New Orleans stage after an eight-year long break, to play his mother Mrs. Paroo. Mason Wood plays the heavy as appropriate for an anvil salesman like Charlie Cowell. Amerlia Jacquat as Mayor Shinn’s daughter Zaneeta and Mason O’Rourke as her recalcitrant boyfriend Tommy Djilas are also good and well matched. Kudos also to Lisette Bayle as Eulalie Mackeecknie Shinn, the leader of the good ladies of River City.
If there were a flaw in the production other than the lack of a professional live orchestra, it might be the choral work in some of the larger pieces like “Wells Fargo Wagon” and the opening “Rock Island.” Sometimes a number of the singing roles seem to be slightly unbalanced and muddy.
The lighting design by Stephen Turber is up to his usual great work, while Eric Porter’s set is also well done. Shelbie Mac’s scenic designs are also tremendously rendered and reinforces her reputation as a genuine quadruple threat. (She’ll be singing, dancing and acting her way through JPAS’s upcoming Peter Pan in the title role next month.)
Bringing The Music Man to the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts stage has been the result of Herculean efforts on the part of the creative staff and the integration of so many youngsters on stage with adults is commendable. It is the happy duty of the artistic directors (Gary Rucker is Kelly Fouchi’s partner) to bring these kinds of classics to a new audience that can appreciate them as worthy vehicles. Lest we forget, The Music Man won a slew of Tony Awards including Best Musical when it debuted in 1957 against West Side Story. The show continues to hold up well as a slice of lost Americana and this production is one that even an Iowan like Meredith Wilson could be proud of.
The Music Man finishes its three-week run this Friday through Sunday with sold out shows at 8:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night and a Sunday matinee at 2:00. Overflow tickets are still available online here. Call 504-461-9475 for more information.