YOUNGSTOWN — Slicker than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and so sugary sweet it might cause tooth decay, Easy Street’s bejeweled production of Meredith Willson’s 1957 classic “The Music Man” should have no trouble appealing to its fan base. Since Easy Street has been playing to large, appreciative audiences for more than two decades now, reviewing one of its musical soirees is pretty much irrelevant at this point.
If you’re the type of person who goes to Disney World more for the live entertainment than a ride on Space Mountain, Easy Street king and queen Todd Hancock and Maureen Collins are probably already on your Twitter friend list.
For anyone else, the Oakland Center for the Arts’ kicky current tenant, “Reefer Madness,” is the musical to see in downtown Youngstown.
Easy Street aficionados know what to expect from director/star Hancock, and “Music Man” — which opened Friday night to an enthusiastic crowd at Edward W. Powers Auditorium — doesn’t disappoint. There are the folksy, familiar show tunes (“Seventy-six Trombones,” “Trouble,” “’Til There Was You,” etc.); Renee Rogers’ exuberant, athletic choreography; some cute tykes culled from the “Little Rascals” youth program; and family values galore. Although Willson’s show predates the relatively recent phenomenon of theme-park musicals, you’d never know it from Easy Street’s “bigger-is-better” version.
The elaborate, extravagant sets and costumes (borrowed from Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera and Costume World Theatrical of Deerfield Beach, Fla., respectively) are Broadway touring show caliber, and Jeff Sanders’ musical direction is predictably top-notch. All that’s missing is the heart and soul to go along with all of that technical savvy and largesse.
“’Til There Was You” is one of the most gorgeous love songs ever written for an American musical, yet neither of the two renditions performed here — by Amanda Beagle’s Marian the librarian and Hancock’s Professor Harold Hill — delivers the goose-bumpy charge I’d hoped for. Beagle is a more naturally gifted singer than actor, and her portrayal of strait-laced bibliophile Marian Paroo feels too textbook and mechanical to truly engage the audience emotionally.
Hancock’s Hill suffers from a similar flaw. The common mistake most actors make when taking on such an iconographic role is to do an imitation of Robert Preston, the most famous Harold Hill of them all. Though Hancock has no trouble duplicating Preston vocally — he even sounds a bit like Preston in the dialogue scenes — capturing the legendary Preston charm soundly defeats him. And a “Music Man” without a roguishly charming Hill is an empty vessel sailing into stormy waters.
On “American Idol,” Simon Cowell likes to knock contestants by comparing their vocal skills to cruise ship and/or cabaret entertainers. At Easy Street, Cowell’s standard diss must sound like the ultimate compliment. With Cheez-Whiz-y performances pitched to the rafters, there’s nothing remotely subtle about this “Music Man.” But since “over-the-top” — and consistent over-milking — is how their devotees seem to like it, it’s understandable why Hancock and company have resisted tampering with such a time-tested formula.
Though Hancock and Beagle make wan romantic leads, a few members of the bustling supporting cast acquit themselves nicely. Community theater veteran David Jendre does such a splendid job as River City’s henpecked Mayor Shinn that it’s a shame his role isn’t larger. Plus, Craig Raymaley has a few bright spots in the second act as anvil salesman Charlie Cowell who serves as the plot’s deus ex machina. Otherwise, too many of the performances (particularly Brendan Boyle’s Marcellus Washburn and Ellen Reed’s Mrs. Paroo) suffer from overstatement when a little restraint would have worked wonders.
The single most distracting feature of the evening was a loquacious lightboard operator in back of the theater who spoke at a conversational volume throughout the entire show. Not even a complaint filed with an usher could stifle her incessant chatter. Pshaw!
X“The Music Man” plays its final performance at 2:30 this afternoon at Edward W. Powers Auditorium. For tickets call (330) 744-0264.