River City’s girls celebrate the Fourth of July in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Music Man.” - Jenny Graham.

Cash for the merchandise, but no charge for hope

In his program notes for the revival of "The Music Man" that opened Saturday night in the Bowmer Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch touted the musical's thematic depth. This is a play that New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson called a cartoon.

So which is it?

Probably both. What Rauch has done is to stage Meredith Willson's confection in a way that directs attention to the theme of transformation, which is right up Rauch's alley. When Professor Harold Hill gets off the train in River City he enters a black-and-white world. By the end, the townspeople are living technicolor lives.

"The Music Man" on its face seems an odd choice for the festival. But there is often a big, fat comedy among the early-season openers. Rauch has now opened it up to musical comedy.

Harold (real name Gregory) Hill (Michael Elich) is an amiable con artist who travels the Midwest in 1912 posing as a band leader. He collects money for instruments and uniforms for a boys' band from the rubes, then skedaddles. He cannot read a note or play a lick. He relies instead on his phony "think system," which encourages the boys to imagine Beethoven's Minuet in G.

Prim librarian Marian Paroo (Gwendolyn Mulamba) and the pompous Mayor Shinn (Richard Elmore) see right through this slicker.

But the townspeople, the "River City-zians," as the oratorically challenged Mayor Shinn calls them, come under his thrall.

Willson labored for years on the musical and pulled off the trifecta of writing book, music and lyrics. It's a warm view of life in the provinces, as corny as the hot dogs at a county fair, quaint even in the '50s. Willson got away with it because of the affection he felt for his characters. A snarky attitude would have killed the thing.

But lest we think of River City as a Disneyfied Main Street, the somber palette suggests that despite the comfortable rhythms, small-town life may not be as innocent as it's cracked up to be.

One of Willson's innovations was music based more on rhythm than rhyme, as in the chugging "Rock Island," the show's first song, which mimics a steam locomotive. Harold, anvil salesman Charlie Cowell (John Pribyl, adding another minor masterpiece to his resume of quirky characters) and the Salesmen had such a rousing go at the number on opening night that the audience burst into applause.

Elich's expansive Harold is very much his own. It must be hard to do the iconic "Trouble" and not ape Robert Preston. And who knew he could sing?

Witness "Seventy-six Trombones," which calls on him to dance energetically as he sings, and the wry "The Sadder-But-Wiser Girls" with ex-henchman Marcellus (Howie Seago, a well-known deaf actor in movies and television), who has finally settled down. Or the "Seventy-six Trombones/"Goodnight My Someone" reprise with Marian (Mulamba has a lovely voice), in which we realize the two numbers are really the same tune.

For the snappy exchanges between Harold and Marcellus, Seago uses American Sign Language, and Elich uses ASL to reply to Seago while also speaking the line. Sounds cumbersome but goes down smoothly.

A funny thing happens on the way to Harold's heist. The townspeople come together, particularly the four quarrelling school board members the professor forges into a barbershop quartet, and the gossipy, judgmental pick-a-little ladies, whom Harold enlists in a dance troupe.

Even Marian's little brother, Winthrop (Ashton Roxander and Sergio Thompson share the role for the season), comes out of the shell he's inhabited since the death of his father.

The townspeople soon begin wearing their changes on their sleeves (even a child's lollipop was black and white). Rauch and costume designer Shigeru Yaji introduce a piece of color here and a splash there until River City glows with rainbow vibrancy.

This expressionistic touch, augmented by musical arrangements that underscore the emotions the characters are feeling, gets at Rauch's view of community transformation. Mayor Shinn clings to his black and white clothing, which is fine, since the expressionist impulse has always needed a stern father figure to embody the bourgeois order against which it rebels.

A combo under the direction of keyboardist Darcy Danielson provides lively accompaniment, Linda Alper's formidable Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn is sharply drawn, the kids are adorable, the choreography is folksy and the dancing first-rate.

In the end, it is not just the town that is changed. Harold brought hope and is paid back in love.

Rauch's assertion that other productions have slighted the element of community change is open to debate (isn't that what this is always about?), but there's no debating that here the point is made like a riot of rainbows.

The ending felt abrupt, reinforcing a suspicion that the play, at about two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission, was slightly truncated. But if you're looking for a can't-miss-show to which to take visiting relatives, this is it.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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