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Curtain Up! is Friday!

Wendy Hall, Diane Curley, John Kaczorowski, Kerrykate Abel, Beth Donohue, and Maria Graham in "The Music Man," at MusicalFare until October 14. Photo by Chris Cavanagh.

Curtain Up!, when Buffalo celebrates the official opening of the live theater season, is Friday night. The weather report predicts clear skies and a warm evening. At this late hour, tickets to shows will be scarce to nonexistent, but the free after-party that begins at about 10pm on Main Street between Chippewa and Tupper can accommodate all comers! There will be live music and refreshment aplenty. In addition, for a small cover charge, there will be a VIP party at Shea’s (anyone with five dollars qualifies as a VIP) that includes drink and food. This will be a Buffalo-style gathering of young and old, people in formal attire and folks in jeans. It’s a great year to come on downtown to celebrate the abundance of theater in Buffalo.

Most shows are opening this week, but MusicalFare let their engaging production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man out of the gate early. I caught the opening performance.

The Music Man

Meredith Willson famously evoked a steam locomotive in the opening scene of his 1957 musical, The Music Man, using nothing but the a cappella chanting of a group of travelling salesmen who bounced in their seats to suggest the movement of the train as they argued over the relative merits of cash and credit.

Cashhhh for the merchandise

Cashhhh for the buttonhooks

Cashhh for the cotton goods

Cashhh for the hard goods

Cashh for the fancy goods

Cashh for the soft goods

Cash for the noggins

And the pickins

And the frickins

The word “cash,” with its sibilant final consonant, suggested the sound of the steam, and the increasing tempo suggested the acceleration of the train.

The number also signaled the arrival of a musical in which clever use of familiar American song styles would spin a nostalgic tale of hometown America in 1912. At MusicalFare in Snyder, director Chris Kelly and designer Chris Schenk continue the minimalist gesture of this opening number to tell the entire story, using only two ladders on wheels, a few chairs, a couple of tables, back projections, and little more.

Here we meet Harold Hill, a con artist who travels to small Midwestern towns, convinces the townsfolk that a boys’ band will solve their nonexistent social ills; sells instruments, uniforms, and instruction books to the hopeful parents; woos any spinster music teachers in the vicinity; pockets the cash, and then hops the next rail car before a single note of music is ever heard.

In River City, Iowa, however, Professor Hill meets his match. Against his better judgment, he falls in love with Marian Paroo, the local librarian and music teacher who sees through his game. In the end, we come to appreciate the power of love, and the equal power of art to enrich our lives.

Chris Kelly incubated his directing career on minimalist productions at Buffalo United Artists (BUA), where the scenery is typically created from benches and cubes, and extravagances like doors and backdrops are shunned as excessive to the storytelling. Kelly happily acknowledges the inspiration provided by a 1990s production of The Sound of Music at defunct Upstage, directed by BUA founder (and Artvoice columnist) Javier Bustillos, an adherent to the essential theater aesthetic of Jerzy Grotowski, that evoked the Swiss Alps with a piece of billowing fabric, recreated the entire Nazi scourge with a single flashlight-toting Nazi, and reined in the whole saga at under two hours.

In that spirit, this production of The Music Man conjures a boys’ band, 76 trombones strong, using two boys in band uniforms and the adoring eyes of the parents focused on a make-believe offstage band.

This leaves the production focused squarely on the assembled talent.

When The Music Man opened on Broadway, it was a hit with audiences. Because it opened in the same year as groundbreaking West Side Story, however, some critics ignored the clever innovations of its score. They sneered that the show was a throwback to the Princess Musicals of the 1910s or to George M. Cohan’s shows. Realize that many members of the original 1957 audience could remember World War I. In fact, they would have been older than Marian Paroo in 1912!

Like the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!, and other shows of the late Golden Age, the genius of The Music Man is that it provides a perfect example of a form that had long since reached its zenith. The show may not confront pressing social issues, but its deceptively complex score, with its counterpoint melodies, surprisingly dense and sophisticated lyrics, and songs that ingeniously underscore and amplify the dramatic action, calls for virtuosity of performance. By that standard, the MusicalFare production is an intriguing amalgam of hits and diversions.

Amy Jakiel, who played Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut in Avenue Q last season, is not an obvious choice to play Marian Paroo. She is a wonderful actress with a pleasing voice and a charismatic stage presence, but she is not a traditional ingénue and does not possess a soaring soprano of the sort that Barbara Cook or Shirley Jones, or Michele Ragusa (who performed the role in the BPO concert version) were able to deploy so lusciously in songs like “Til There Was You” and “Good Night My Someone.” Nonetheless, Ms. Jakiel is able to reinterpret the role, delivering a spunkier Marian, less prim and better equipped to take on the world. The result is a performance that wins us over and melts us into a puddle of adoration in numbers like “My White Knight,” which, in Ms. Jakiel’s rendition, becomes the ultimate charm song. This is a very pleasing and entirely appropriate (if untraditional) interpretation, adding further brilliance to Jakiel’s burgeoning local acting career.

As for the Music Man himself, make no mistake, audiences will enjoy John Kaczorowski as Professor Harold Hill. A bit young for the role, the brash and youthful allure he brings to the occasion is, nonetheless, most appealing. Kaczorowski moves well, and does a fine job of creating a fun-loving rascal who intends no real harm. He does not have a powerful voice. This is not a disabling deficiency, as the production maneuvers around numbers designed to blare out with the authority of trumpet fanfare, substituting boyish good humor in their place.

The story and the score of The Music Man are irresistible. An essential ingredient of a show like this, of course, is excellence of performance. Golden Age performers gave birth to the category of the triple threat: They could sing; they could dance; they could act. When it came time to film The Music Man, Meredith Willson happily accepted Shirley Jones to play Marian. Jones had already been hand-chosen by Rodgers and Hammerstein to star in films versions of Oklahoma and Carousel. But he rejected pop singer Frank Sinatra outright. Unless triple-threat Robert Preston could be employed to recreate his Broadway performance in the title role, there would be no film. The studio relented.

The MusicalFare production is decidedly post-Golden Age and highlights the reason that these shows are so difficult to remount. The issue of the show’s enormity has been resolved with a minimalist approach that makes for an amusingly camp evening. The issue of the show’s formidable singing and dancing requirements is a greater hurdle. Today’s performers are simply not trained to use their voices. In some of the greatest chorus numbers ever written for Broadway, this production compensates for missing vocal power with charm.

Beth Donohue is very pleasing as Mrs. Paroo, and Ben Puglisi is sensational as Marcellus, Harold Hill’s hometown friend, singing and commanding the stage with power and precision, and taking ownership of the show with his rollicking performance in “Shipoopi.” Eric Rawski is wonderfully amusing as Mayor Shinn—the sort of role this actor can do in his sleep. Kerrykate Abel has palpable fun with Mrs. Shinn.

Adam Kluge, who was so adorable as Oliver last season, is equally affecting as Winthrop, the child who lisps his way through Gary, Indiana. I especially enjoyed Brandon Barry as Tommy, the town bad boy whose life finds purpose through the arts. Christina Golab is very sweet as Zaneeta, the mayor’s daughter. Adult Maria Graham pulls off the magic trick of embodying Alma, a child role. David Bondrow, Matthew Crane, Joe Donohue III, and Matthew Iwanski play the barbershop quartet of community leaders and perform most admirably.

Chris Schenk has designed the simple yet clever set, with lighting and sound design by Chris Cavanagh. Costume design is by Kari Drozd. Bobby Cooke has worked around the abilities of the non-dancing cast quite artfully.

It is a treat to see a Golden Age musical, and in this production, it is a life-affirming event as well. The rest of the Curtain Up! line-up begins to tumble in this weekend, but with The Music Man, the season is off to a happy beginning!

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