|Zac Bushman and Lauren Koeritzer|
photo by Denise Sowers Desoto
by Jennifer Haaland
Mesa Encore Theatre (MET) has a sweet production of The Music Man running at Mesa Art Center whose sugarcoating has a wonderful nugget of truth at its center. The entire show is a nostalgic theatre stroll through sentimental music via a praiseworthy community effort.
After its 1957 hit on Broadway, the musical became part of the country's circulatory system when the blockbuster movie with Robert Preston made 'Trouble in River City' a permanently pulsing phrase a few years later. The story of a traveling salesman who gets his "foot caught in the door" of cranky, small town Iowa sticks to our ribs because of how it elevates art. That is, a swindling Professor Harold Hill might not know an oboe from a saxophone, but the way he ties music to dreams and social change is unforgettable.
The production at Mesa Arts Center opened with musical theatre's original rap song, "Rock Island," during which the exposition is laid out by a crisp male ensemble on a train. Their metered cadence that mirrors the steam engine's rhythm introduced shady salesman Hill (Zac Bushman) and characterized the challenges of a River City culture.
The full chorus acapella segment of "Iowa Stubborn" was goose bump good, which heightened anticipation for upcoming big ensemble numbers.
Like he'd been born singing, Hill's character was rock solid when he had a melody to sing or choreographed steps to deliver. "Trouble" and "Seventy-Six Trombones" sparkled with that 'wrap the town around your finger' talent every Harold Hill needs. So at home with music beneath him, Bushman's delivery of straight dialogue felt a little less certain and natural.
As a fitting balance, there was neither a note of trouble nor guile in MET's Marian (Lauren Koeritzer). She was as fine voiced as any librarian. Ever. With believable prim condescension at the ready, her gradual reckoning of attraction and gentler inklings felt sincerely vulnerable.
While we watched Hill woo her in "Marian the Librarian," the library itself played a creative role. Kerry Jordan's technical team has built a wonderfully towering, backlit two-tier set complete with rolling shelf-ladder. The ensemble coyly romped through their cute community choreography with varied march steps using the tables, counters and bookcase tiers as danceable surfaces.
Mesa Encore Theatre's truest gift is this. Their 80-year Mesa history has a pervasive knack for discovering and displaying raw talent in its glory. They had Asher Angel as an Oliver! for the ages a couple seasons ago (who has now been picked up by Disney). They had a Carousel ending that turned domestic violence on its ear. And now they have the lisping magic of a new Winthrop.
Music Man's heart depends on a Winthrop transformed enough to excuse deceptions and sow trust that blossoms into love. And by golly, Ben Kubicki's genuine metamorphosis flips the switch at exactly the right moment. By unlocking his own self consciousness, he provides keys for his big sister's budding relationship and the community's growth.
When this Winthrop storms the stage brave enough to belt "The Wells Fargo Wagon is a comin," he issues a momentary cure for all that is wrong with the world. He is a child released from miserable shame to trumpet hope.
In addition, Tommy Djilas (Tad Morgan) was one of those actors to whom we're drawn like a magnet, while Mrs. Paroo's (Priscilla Bertling) exasperated Irish antics were a hoot. Another great source of giggles was Mrs. Squires (Kelsey Pokatello) whose apple-munching disinterest was hilarious. All in all, director Damon Bolling coaxed well the best and brightest attributes his cast had to offer.
The underlying message that Music Man seems to provide is that perhaps distraction or even deception by art is not such a bad thing. For instance, rather than researching and exposing fraud (that eventually will right itself), the civic-minded barbershop quartet was hoodwinked by their own sweet harmonies . The Pick-a-Little ladies were similarly distracted for the good of all.
The thing is, music solves and softens the biggest problems in River City. For that, Music Man in Mesa is an excellent reason to--right along with Harold Hill--always believe there's a band.
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