By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Meredith Wilson composed what may have been the most iconic of American musicals with his The Music Man that took home five Tony Awards including Best Musical, ran for 1,375 performances and received the very first Grammy Award for an original cast album. In that same year and by comparison, the groundbreaking West Side Story from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim garnered just two Tony Awards and, while successful, ran for two years on Broadway, about half the run of the former.
But the years have not been so kind for The Music Man. The recently opened Broadway Museum has an entire room dedicated to West Side Story and to date two feature films have been released 60 years apart. The Music Man enjoys a more modest mention at the museum and its 1962 feature film (which also starred Broadway leading man Robert Preston) has never been been considered for a Hollywood remake.
Yet, while The Music Man has not endured as lasting a legacy for its beautifully-orchestrated choruses and its incorporation of barbershop quartet four-part harmonies with soaring soprano arias, it still offers patrons an enchanting evening or afternoon of interesting patter songs and rousing anthems while glorifying small town Americana life.
The recent Summer Lyric Theater at Tulane production of Wilson’s major opus is an example of how it can still be pertinent and enduring in its own unique fashion. Expertly directed and choreographed by Diane Lala, this production sparkled and shone like few others have done before it.
And one need first look no further than to one of its leading stars as the reason why.
Rachel Looney possesses one of the area’s best classically-trained soprano voices. She has been a part of several New Orleans Opera Association productions and was featured as Chan Parker in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird earlier in the year. Last year her luminescent voice soared in the titular role of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella as part of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s 2022 season and her pre-pandemic role as Phoebe D’Ysquith in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré was also quite memorable.
To her credit, Looney is quite familiar with the role of the madam librarian. She last performed as Marian Paroo in Rivertown Theater’s 2018 production of The Music Man with a similar mellifluous voice, but a late decision to go with a canned music track rather than a live orchestra in the pit left musical theater fans wanting more. With SLT’s interim artistic director C. Leonard Raybon behind the conductor’s baton this time, the difference was startling.
Raybon conducted a full orchestra of 22 musicians featuring strings and a full brass section, many musicians hailing from the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. The singers were especially elevated by this magical experience and the audience was rewarded with the rich musical bounty resulting from their coupling.
Ryan Reilly co-starred in the title role of Professor Harold Hill. His performance was squarely on target as the flimflam man who flabbergasts the citizens of River City, Iowa with his promises of a boy’s band. Reilly’s voice was good in the especially difficult “Trouble” and the “Seventy-six Trombones,” but it was best when he was paired with his co-star in Act II’s “Till There Was You” and “Seventy-six Trombones/Goodnight, My Someone.”
Bob Edes, Jr. played Mayor Shinn with perfect comedic timing, while Lalanya Gunn was delightfully cast as his high-handed wife Eulalie McKechnie Shinn. Another notable was Austin Adomitis, who performed in the role of anvil salesman Charlie Cowell, one of the first performers we meet in the opening number “Rock Island” and who returns in Act II in a scene opposite Looney to warn the townspeople of Harold Hill’s bad intentions.
Elizabeth Argus, who cut her teeth on many a leading actress role at Summer Lyric Theatre, is quite wonderful as Mrs. Paroo portraying Marian and her little brother Winthrop’s (Liam Askew) mother. Although she sings less than we are accustomed, she attacks the role with enthusiasm and great heart. Askew stole the show in Act II’s “Gary, Indiana” while a very generous Argus more than held her own.
Also, at the top of his game was Ken Goode, Jr. as Marcellus Washburn. His rendition of “Shipoopi” just after the opening in Act II is a brilliant showcase for Lala to showcase her talent as a choreographer. The dance sequences were well executed with Goode at front and center leading the way for the other cast members.
The four River City School Board members were played by Chase Ludeau, Zach Materne, Taylor Miller and Juan L. Williams. The quartet was quite remarkable, placed into harmony and proper pitch by Professor Hill. The four played opposite Eulalie Shinn and the gossipy women of the town in “Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little”)” and “Goodnight, Ladies.” They also were in excellent musical form in “Lida Rose” opposite Looney’s “Will I Ever Tell You.”
The technical staff also did a wonderful job. Glenn Avery Breed executed the costume designs with additional help from Baylee Robertson. Daniel Zimmer lit the stage as the lighting director with his usual skill. Rick Paul rendered a functional and eye-appealing set design. David Rigamer handled the sound designs, while Laurin Hart Edmonson was responsible for providing a huge number of wigs as well as taking care of executing the makeup for the cast.
The Music Man, directed and choreographed by Diane Lala ran June 15 – 18. This was the first of the three slated productions for Summer Lyric Theatre this year. All productions will be at Dixon Hall on the Tulane University campus. Up next will be Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors opening on July 6. The final show of the summer will be Lionel Bart’s magnum opus Oliver! running the last week in July. For tickets call the box office from 12 noon to 5 p.m. weekdays at 504-865-5269 or click here for information on how to contact the box office via email.