The Music Man

Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson, story by Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey
In association with Paul Elliott and Duncan C Weldon
Chichester Festival Theatre
(2008)

It is with admiration, and not a comment on his character, that I say Brian Conley must have been born to play this fraudster, conman Professor Harold Hill. His persuasive powers and cheeky charm could easily attract the birds from the trees and the money from your pocket, leaving you with armfuls of goods that you didn’t know you wanted.

In this show, with a mixture of charisma, dodgy logic and fast talking, he manages to persuade the good citizens of River City, Iowa, that their children will come to no good unless they form a brass band under his leadership, and he hopes that he will be long gone before they discover that his musical expertise is sadly lacking – a fact verified by Conley’s final brave attempt to play trombone.

Every facet of this show is a surprise and delight. The musicians revealed perched high above the stage are suddenly replaced by a tiny train chugging its way across the American mid-West, then focus shifts to the travellers, salesmen all, jolted and swaying on their journey and about to try their sales technique in yet another town. The first song is practically a monologue – a warning about Harold Hill - and is more a animated rhythm than a tune, but in fact there is infinite variety of music within the show from the famous 76 Trombones and the wistfully and lyrically romantic Goodnight My Someone, to the Pick a Little, Talk a Little song, comically illustrated by the chattering ladies behaving like chickens.

Beautifully voiced Scarlett Strallen is Marion, the librarian who can see through Hill but falls for him anyway, and her younger sister Zizi plays the mayor’s daughter, also in the throes of a young love that her father considers unsuitable. I did sometimes find it a little hard to distinguish the words in the high-pitched voice adopted for the character, but (like her sister) what a fabulous dancer, particularly beautiful in the romantic ballet by the lovers’ footbridge, where Howard Harrison’s lighting effects enhanced the mood to perfection.

In this sparkling production director Rachel Kavanaugh keeps attention firmly focused throughout the many changes, and Stephen Mears brilliantly inventive choreography is as full of variety as the music – apart, perhaps from the townspeople who react as one, keeping the rhythm of the music, mostly with their marching feet.

Sir Harry Secombe’s daughter Katy manages to be motherly, comical and appealing all at the same time, and Jenny Galloway stands out as a comically imposing Eulalie, the mayor’s wife, leading her smock-clad ‘ladies’ in a dance, or appearing on Independence Day dressed as the US flag, while young Eddie Manning evokes compassion and sympathy - and delight at his final triumph when the young shy boy overcomes his lisp thanks to discovering a talent for music.

This is a show which reaches out to its audience, wrapping them in a warm and happy glow which lasts long after the seventy six trombones have marched off into the distance – and what a finale! The whole company, including the musical director, decked out in their splendid band uniforms, brought the people of Chichester (not known for giving praise lightly) to their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation. Wonderful!

Sheila Connor