If you miss the “Utah!” pageant that used to be performed at the Tuacahn Amphitheatre, go see “The Music Man.” It’s the closest thing to a pageant that’s appeared there since they switched to regular musicals a couple years ago.
This is not, mind you, a good thing. “Pageant” acting means the acting is broad, boisterous and lifeless. Actors speak their lines accurately, but with little sense of comic timing, subtlety, levels or character.
The result? The songs are great. Legendary Utah actor Max Robinson plays con-man Harold Hill with energy and flair, and he and his co-stars enunciate extremely well through the show’s many fast-paced, cleverly written tunes. Brent Schneider’s choreography, while often cheesy (every song ends with all the townspeople’s hands up in the air), is nonetheless enjoyable to watch, thanks to a talented crew of dancers.
The problem, then, is everything BETWEEN the songs. The humor in this show, about small-town American in the 1910s, should come from the endearing, slightly odd characters, from the blustery Mayor Shinn to the fiesty Irish widow Paroo. The lines are often corny by themselves; it takes skillful characterization on the part of the actors to make them funny.
These actors, though, bless their hearts, are just going through the motions. They’re doing it enthusiastically, to be sure, but everything comes across as pure fluff — and unfunny fluff, at that. Marian the librarian (Melinda Larson) sings beautifully, but is positively dead during the moments when she’s supposed to be reconciling her love for Harold with her knowledge that he’s a fraud. She says the lines that indicate slowly changing feelings, but there are no feelings in them.
The other moment of actual emotion in this light-hearted show is when Harold learns that Marian could have exposed him right from the start, but didn’t, because she loves him. Robinson plays that moment nicely, most likely because he’s a good actor, and not because of anything director John Caywood told him. Caywood seems more interested in making the show big than in making it good, directing his actors with practically no eye for humor. There are fireworks at the end of Act II, but for no reason. There are also geysers of water that shoot out of the ground when Harold’s being chased through town, also for no reason.
Robinson’s Harold Hill is charismatic in his singing, as mentioned. But between songs, he doesn’t let us get to know him, much less LIKE him. To some extent, the show is written so that he remains a bad guy until the love of a good woman changes him. But it is possible to make the guy likable, even while we’re not sure we trust what he’s doing. He is, after all, a con man: He should be able to make the audience like him as much as the townspeople do. Robinson somehow accomplishes the dubious goal of being simultaneously charismatic and flat.
That’s the whole show, in fact: charismatic but flat. Plenty of enthusiasm, plenty of talent, but not enough direction in the acting to make it memorable.
This show has great poo potential. If you don't cast it just right, and get people who will really capture the understated quirkiness and humor of the small-town characters, you'll ruin it by being too big and corny. The movie got it just about perfect; I've never seen a live production -- including the recent Broadway revival -- that came that close.