Meredith Willson : The Music Man

Chichester Festival

Chichester Festival Theatre, 5 July 2008 3.5 stars

Brian ConleyConsidering he was the main motivation behind it, it's sad that Brian Conley is the only serious weakness in the Chichester Festival's otherwise superb revival of The Music Man.

For me at least, Conley stuck out like a sore thumb in the role of Harold Hill, the supposed 'Professor' of the show's title. He's referred to as a 'spell-binding cymbal salesman' by the Mayor of River City, Iowa, where the musical is set, but I felt anything but spellbound by Conley's oleaginous characterisation, not to mention his hammy, over-telegraphed acting.

The composer of The Music Man, Meredith Willson, wrote his own lyrics and libretto for his paean to his hometown, Mason City, Iowa. A gentle satire of small-town America, the story deals with a travelling salesmen who arrives in an insular community and pretends to detect 'trouble' in the form of a new pool table which is supposedly corrupting the youth of River City. Hill's solution is to engage the boys' minds by forming a brass band – but the putative 'Professor' can't read a note of music. Though he intends to charge the townsfolk for the instruments and uniforms and leave before he's found out, he undergoes redemption through the love of the initially frosty town librarian, Marian Paroo, who sees the good effect Hill's inspirational energy has had on the entire town. Though the people turn against him and put him in handcuffs, Hill's leading of a slightly disastrous but heart-warming rendition of Beethoven's Minuet in G by the band during the final scene brings them round.

Brian ConleyDiegesis and spontaneity are the order of the day in this, Meredith Willson's most successful show. The opening number features a group of salesmen chatting in a railway carriage along to the rhythm of the train's clattering wheels and steam – there are no tuned pitches but the number grows out of the setting of the scene. Later, a piano lesson turns seamlessly into a full-blown musical number, with the piano pupil's exercises providing the accompaniment. 'Trouble', Harold Hill's first song, turns from ordinary speech to accompanied speech to song with a similar natural flow.

This most slick and brilliant of shows receives an equally slick and brilliant production for Chichester from director Rachel Kavanaugh and choreographer Stephen Mear. The latter in particular deserves praise for the staging of the musical numbers, which take up most of the duration of the show. The train scene at the start is done simply but effectively with the salesmen sitting on suitcases in a semicircle on a revolving floor. The wittily stilted movement of the townspeople during 'Iowa Stubborn' portrays their insular society with sharp insight; I loved the way Hill uses the doorbells on the set rather than a pitch pipe to give the barbershop quartet/town council their notes; and the big 'Marian the Scarlett StrallenLibrarian' ballet is the lively chaos it should be. Robert Jones' designs are imaginative and effective without becoming overblown. He delivers the iconic settings that one associates with the 1962 film version – the footbridge, the Wells Fargo Wagon, the library counter – but it never interferes with the action and there isn't a single lengthy scene change. Kavanaugh guides the project with a light touch, ensuring that the plot is conveyed clearly without being too heavy-handed about it, and embracing the fact that this is essentially light-hearted entertainment whilst putting across its serious messages with care.

But I'm afraid the leading man's disappointing performance as Harold Hill meant that the heart of the piece was lacking for me. The 'nudge nudge, wink wink' school of comedy might work in some musicals, but it's crucial that Hill be a likeable guy. Here, one wonders what Marion sees in him, and Conley makes it so obvious when he's duping his victims that it's hardly convincing that he manages to do it most of the time. The 'River Citiziens', as the Mayor refers to them, are stubborn rather than completely stupid, and should surely be approached with at least the semblance of subtlety, but there's no seduction about Conley's manner with them. Musically, too, I was disappointed: all the nuance of Robert Preston's still-unmatchable delivery of numbers such as 'Trouble', 'The Sadder But Wiser Girl', 'Seventy-Six Trombones' and 'Marian the ShipoopiLibrarian' is missing. More worryingly, Conley sounded tired and even a little hoarse at times, especially in the first act; I was expecting a lot more power and exuberance. He just about turned it round towards the end and thankfully let go of the empty smile, but if you don't believe that Hill can convince the people that they have troubles they need him to fix, the motivation of the show is undermined.

Nevertheless, almost everything else about the production is such a pleasure that I have no hesitation in recommending it. Scarlett Strallen is excellent as Marian Paroo. Although she doesn't quite have the voice of Barbara Cook, who originated the role, nor Shirley Jones in the film version (nor even Julie Andrews, whom The Daily Mail erroneously claims played the character on Broadway), Strallen sings beautifully and with the charisma and emotional sincerity that Conley lacks. Added to that, she's extremely good-looking, a gifted actress, and she dances with impressive energy and style. Andy Hockley plays Marcellus Washburn to perfection, leading 'Shipoopi' with élan, and although Rolf Saxon and Jenny Galloway diverge from conventional portrayals of the Shinns, they do so convincingly and The Music Manrefreshingly. Zizi Strallen puts in a strong performance as Zaneeta, Katy Secombe is a sympathetic Mrs Paroo and the two children playing Winthrop and Amaryllis hold their own against their adult counterparts.

When The Music Man opened in 1957, it beat West Side Story to nearly all the Tony nominations for that year. Although the musicals' fates were reversed the following decade in their film adaptations, this is the perfect chance to see a cracking production of one of the greatest shows of the golden age of Broadway – a great family day out at the comfortable, intimate Chichester Festival Theatre. 

By Dominic McHugh

Photographs: Catherine Ashmore

Previous reviews of musical theatre:
Candide
at ENO
Betwixt! The Musical
at the King's Head
My Fair Lady Original Broadway Cast on Naxos
Gypsy on Broadway with Patti Lupone
Funny Girl at the Chichester Festival
Kismet at ENO
On the Town at ENO