By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Just about everyone has seen “The Music Man” at one time or another, and that level of familiarity means theater audiences show up with expectations.
Rob Morris, who is directing the Youngstown Playhouse’s season-opening production of the cornerstone musical, knows this full well and aims to meet the challenge head on.
“People will come with expectations and we’re looking to meet or exceed them,” he said. “They will want a charismatic Harold Hill and familiar songs that are nostalgic. We’ve got great singing, music and choreography.”
The show opens Friday at the Playhouse and is slated for six performances over consecutive weekends. It will mark the beginning of the theater’s 92nd season.
Morris stressed that his team is staging a version of “The Music Man” that will bring no surprises. “We’re not reinventing the show,” he said. “We’re doing it very traditionally.”
The key to any take on “The Music Man” lies in the lead character of Harold Hill, the exuberant con-man who blusters into town and turns it on its ear. Don Wolford is filling that linchpin role in the Playhouse production, and Morris said he has the character’s defining traits.
“The standout aspects I was looking for were charm and charisma,” he said. “Harold is a crook the whole show and the audience has to love him and cheer for a guy who is ripping off the town. Donny walks that line masterfully. He is lovable and charismatic and by the time we get to the end, his turnaround makes for a great climax.”
Morris, who teaches drama and other subjects at Valley Christian School, is making his return to the Playhouse after an absence of a few years. He most recently appeared in “The 39 Steps” (2012) and “Scrooge” (2011) at the South Side theater.
Morris directed “White Christmas” at Main Street Theater in Columbiana last year, played the role of George Bailey in a “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Trumbull New Theatre in 2012, and has played Jesus the last four years in the annual Passion Play production at Highway Tabernacle. He has also recently performed in productions of “Shrek, the Musical” at Kent-Trumbull and at Main Street Theater.
The Playhouse always opens its year with a landmark musical, and Morris is making his directorial debut at the theater in high-profile fashion.
Bernie Appugliese, who was executive director of the Playhouse when the 2016-17 season was being drawn up, wanted to open the year with a show with a large cast.
“I was up for the challenge,” said Morris. “I got as many teens and adults that we could muster, a total of 56. The kids have a great stage IQ, so we haven’t had to redo a lot. They’ve been so helpful. With those kind of numbers, I needed that.”
It’s the first time Morris will direct “The Music Man,” which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1958.
Also starring in the Playhouse production is Amber Cole as Marian Paroo, the librarian and reluctant love interest of Harold Hill.
Filling out the cast of supporting characters are Keith Stepanic, Laurie Evans Smith, Gary Deckant, Kathleen C. Sanfrey, Ed Phillips, Eric Chevlen, Joe Malys, Vijay Welch-Young, Brady Bizon, Kate Pelini, Jeremy Sanfrey, Dave Wolford, John Weber, Amy Banks, Jacinda Madison, Jill Cataldi, Mary Smrek, Adrianna Quinlan and Jessie Thomas.
The ensemble includes Nick Adduci, Bryce Allison, Joey Baylor, Caleb Bordonaro, Mia Rose Bordonaro, Reece Bordonaro, Samantha Denise Breen, Brayden Bryant, Emily Caguiat, Ethan Clark, Ridley Clark, Samantha Cox, Matthew Ellis, Olivia Garland, Steve Halas, Layla Hassen, Michael Hill, Marisa Keshock, Kira Ketcham, Natalie Kovacs, Eden Lesnansky, Joey Lohr, Randy Madison, Emily Maroni, Mikayla Moore, Anthony Morris, Christopher Scott, Terre Snead, Jonah Stevens, Lydia Stevens, Micah Stevens, Mary Story, Savanna Wade, Trinity Watson and Tyler Witherstine.
Kevin Clark is the stage manager and Amy Bordanaro is the choreographer. Tyler Clark is the musical director, with assistance from Jan Crews.
Leslie Brown designed the set and lighting and Pat Petaccio created the costumes. Johnny Pecano serves as technical director.