In terms of aw-shucks family wholesomeness — the kind that seems tailor-made for good-hearted, sprawling summer community-theater productions — it’s hard to beat Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man.”
Consider a wonderful moment in the uneven new CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre production, now in its final weekend at the Mercedes Edwards Theatre. Watch 6-year-old Jackson Estep, a few years younger than called for in the script but already possessing an impressive confidence on stage, step out as Winthrop in the “The Wells Fargo Wagon” to belt out a lisp-dominated solo. It’s just so cute you want to box up the moment in a pretty package and take it home with you, there to enjoy at your leisure when the world gets surly.
There are some good reasons, then, that CenterStage loves this time-honored show. The company last produced “The Music Man” just six years ago.
It’s only natural for me to compare the latest version with the 2008 incarnation. While the new production, directed by Scott Hancock, has some exuberant moments and performances, including Winthrop in “Wells Fargo,” and a great “Shipoopi” dance number, it’s not as accomplished as the earlier version. Sometimes it seems downright creaky.
There’s trouble in this River City even before the curtain comes up. In lieu of the traditional “please turn off your cellphones” announcement, the four actors playing the members of the town school board stride onto the stage and offer a tight-harmony version. A clever way to get a knowing laugh from the audience? Perhaps, but why give away one of the fun comic plot points of the show even before it begins?
When Professor Harold Hill (Eric Estep) arrives in town to run his let’s-form-a-boys-band scam, he’s able to smooth-talk his way into the hearts of most of the community. But Mayor Shinn (Tim Zundel) is suspicious, and one of the play’s sure-fire running comic gags is in how the members of the school board (Terry Starr, Doug Yarrow, Mac McIntosh and Jim Irwin, who blend for a terrific sound) keep asking for Hill’s credentials.
How does Hill keep slipping away? By discovering that their four voices of the school board members make a natural barbershop quartet, then baiting them with lovely tunes. Yet the audience has already heard the four men in beautiful harmony before the overture. We already know the punch line.
The comedy in this production continues to be the weak link after that, particularly when the mayor and quartet (whose members seem more like singers stuck into a show rather than full-fledged characters) is involved. Mayor Shinn is supposed to be an outsize bumbler, but Zundel is unable to convey that quality to the audience, and the results were awkward at the Friday night performance I saw on opening weekend. Hancock can’t seem to find the comic zing in these scenes and others. Even the efforts of Shannah Estep (who has some great comic chops), as Eulalie Shinn, the mayor’s batty wife, fizzle in the environment.
Eric Estep, a Valley theater veteran, delivers an energetic performance as Hill, but it isn’t close to my favorite performance from him. He comes across as too “nice” for the role, lacking the slightly smarmy underbelly that the character needs. (This is, after all, a guy who can charm money out the wallets of the most stubborn Iowans.) Estep has consummate diction on stage, but even his lyrics get lost at times thanks to CenterStage’s touchy sound system and the large, live, brassy orchestra (which sounds very fine under conductor Pete van der Paardt).
Heather Price offers some beautiful vocals as Marion, the uptight librarian who slowly gravitates toward Hill — her “Goodnight, My Someone” shimmers — and Jacquie Broach is strong as her mother. Joy Smith gives a sweet performance as Amaryllis, Winthrop’s little friend, and Gian Console brings an accomplished bounce to the role of bad-boy Tommy Djilas.
The highlight of the show for me is choreographer Julian Perez’s rousing “Shipoopi” dance number — an experience made richer by Darren Tharp’s jovial vocals as Marcellus. The teen dance ensemble obviously put in a lot of hours giving this number a skillful sheen.
While this production of “The Music Man” has some hiccups, it still manages to deliver on the aw-shucks Americana promise of this classic musical. Those raisins from Fresno arriving on the Wells Fargo wagon, after all, are a sign of a big, bountiful and optimistic country — and one that makes big, bountiful and optimistic musicals.