If you're going to tinker with a musical theater classic, you'd better have a clear idea where you're headed.
A case in point is "The Music Man" at Laguna Moulton Playhouse. And happily, director Douglas Rowe and musical director Mark Turnbull know exactly where they want to go. The choices are subtle, not startling--and some work far better than others--but the sum total is an original rather than a pale carbon.
The most refreshing component of this production is the musical direction, especially the decision to put the eight-piece orchestra on stage and provide fresh orchestration that includes banjo, guitar and strains of Dixieland. There may be just one trombone here instead of 76, but it works.
Rowe has streamlined the action, paring down the production numbers and adding some surprises, such as strolling musicians worked into the musical numbers. Set designer Wally Huntoon has created an ethereal town consisting of pastel-hued trelliswork and multipurpose movable parts.
The effect is dreamlike, more a shaded recollection of small-town 1912 America than a literal visit to an earlier time. It makes a plausible overlay to Meredith Willson's tale of the flimflam traveling salesman whose hardened heart is finally melted by a prim librarian.
But not all the choices fit quite as comfortably. Hill, played by musical director Turnbull, pulls the audience in on his scam with broad winks and mugging in "Ya Got Trouble." The result is that the townspeople are seen through Hill's jaded eyes--as rubes rather than real people--which undercuts the poignancy that comes later. As much as these rock-ribbed Iowans have become caricatures over the years, there is also a generous thread of affection for them running through the script.
Pulling the musicians into the action works beautifully at times, less so at others. Occasionally, it misfires altogether. The use of a lone acoustic guitar accompanying the wistful solo "My White Knight" is inspired. But when Hill strolls out playing that guitar, it becomes confusing; his character isn't supposed to know one note from another.
Turnbull avoids the cliches inherent in the role of the phony professor and finds his own solid interpretation, but the vocal score poses some problems for him.
Tricia Griffin makes a dignified, determined and thoroughly winning Marian. Her poignant solos provide some of the best moments in this production. "Goodnight, My Someone," "My White Knight" and "Till There Was You" sound distinctively fresh accompanied by Griffin's phrasing and Turnbull's orchestration.
Teddy Tapscott as Marian's eternally hopeful mother and Michael Miller as angry anvil salesman Charlie Cowell stand out against the backdrop of the animated River City residents. The versatile set elements that represent River City are attractive and atmospheric, with all that period trelliswork, but they tend to look a bit alike, which makes it difficult to get a fix on time passing and scenes changing. Yet the effect here--and throughout the production, right down to its final moments--is fresh.
THE MUSIC MAN Produced by Laguna Moulton Playhouse. Book, music and lyrics: Meredith Willson. Story: Meredith Willson, Franklin Lacey. Director: Douglas Rowe. Principal cast members: Michael Miller, Mark Turnbull, Walter Daly, Edward Belfrey, S.L. (Chip) Paschal, Tricia Griffin, Lynn Dove, Teddy Tapscott, Garrett Kamps, Andrew Kiehl, Betsy Hewett. Costumes: Jennifer Anderson. Lighting: Kristan Clark. Music director: Mark Turnbull. Choreography: Kathy Kahn. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, with 2:30 p.m. matinees Sunday. Closes June 20. Tickets $12 Tuesday and Wednesday, $13 Thursday and Sunday, $14 Friday and Saturday. Laguna Moulton Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. (714) 494-0743.