The Music Man

That all-American show “The Music Man” is performed with gusto, if not finesse, at the SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre.

Truly a classic in American theater, “The Music Man” is about a small Iowa town that gets turned upside-down by a con man named Harold Hill (Matt Beck), who claims the town needs a boys’ band to keep the kids off the streets.

It’ll cost money, though, of course, and Harold plans to leave town before anyone realizes he doesn’t know one note from another. Trouble is, he accidentally falls in love with Marian the librarian (Rachel Shill Beck, real-life wife of the man who plays Harold), and he doesn’t want to leave after all. But can he stay to let the townspeople discover they’ve been had?

This show has many wonderful songs, “Ya Got Trouble,” “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Till There Was You” among them. The Becks both have strong, gorgeous voices. Matt’s is rich and full, and Rachel’s opera training shines through.

A barbershop quartet (Loran Bingham, Steve Lundgreen, Roger Tuckett and Scott Wells) also makes for pleasant listening.

While the large cast performs with zeal, something is missing from the show. Opening night was plagued with microphone problems, and the prerecorded music often missed its cues. (Many of the songs stop and start so much that you’d almost have to use a live orchestra to get it right.) Perhaps these problems are what caused the show to seem mechanical, almost perfunctory.

Where many of the laughs should be provided by the bizarre townspeople — the blustery mayor, his pompous wife, etc. — the show misses a lot of opportunities.

Nonetheless, there are bright spots. The opening train scene is as imaginative as it should be, and the ladies dance committee’s “Grecian Urn” number is hilarious. Lara Z. Wells is good as the mayor’s wife; Matthew Williams (double-cast with Adam Steele) is adorable and energetic as Winthrop.

In fact, the energy young Williams uses as the lisping 10-year-old, as well as the over-the-top zest we see in his older brother, Spencer, as Tommy Djilas, is exactly what I’d like to have seen in Matt Beck as Harold Hill. This show lives and dies by the charm of its lead character, and while Beck has some charisma, he seems almost physically unable to keep up with the demands of the role. This is a fast-talking, one-step-ahead flim-flam man, and Beck is trying breathlessly to get all the words out.

Rachel Beck has a fantastic singing voice; as an actress, she doesn’t give Marian enough prim-and-proper to make her a suitable pre-feminist obstacle to Harold’s chauvinistic smooth-talker. She seems like just another giddy school girl smitten with the cool out-of-towner, like in so many other ’50s musicals — thus making the show seem as demeaning to women as all the others from that era, instead of being refreshingly different, like it should be.

Theater-critic complaints aside, this production mostly entertains. If the technical glitches are cured, it will be a solid show that, while perhaps not as great as its source material, is nonetheless a crowd-pleaser.

Spencer Williams, of course, is Happy Guy, previously seen in "Guys and Dolls" and "State Fair". We were thrilled to see him with an actual speaking role.

"The Music Man" is by far my favorite musical, and one of my favorite movies of all time. When I was a teen-ager, my family got hooked on it and watched it over and over again. As a result, my siblings and I can all quote the entire movie from beginning to end. Many of the lines still make me laugh, particularly when delivered by the quirky folks who appear in the film version. "Whaddaya talk?," from the opening train scene, is part of my vocabulary.

I have had two friends who, while in high school, played Harold Hill in their school productions. If I were good enough, I would wish the same thing for myself some day. I can think of few other roles in all of theater that I would have more fun playing than that. A smooth-talking con man, making friends with everyone -- plus you get to kiss Shirley Jones (or Barbara Cook, if you're fantasizing about the Broadway version)!

I have it on good authority that Matt Beck, who played Harold Hill in this production, is not named Matthew, but rather, Mattney. Just so you know.

Obviously, the newspaper received an angry letter in response to this review; after all, I said a couple negative things. How dare I?

What a treat it was to see "The Music Man" at the Scera Shell. It was beautifully cast, and wonderfully directed and choreographed. Matt Beck did a tremendous job as Harold Hill, his body movements, timing and great voice (which could be heard) were outstanding. Rachel Beck's beautiful voice matched her fine performance as Marian. They played off each other delightfully. Kudos to the director for managing that huge cast of townspeople!! They were wonderful singers, and moved around so very well. The music was so delightful and well done. The blustery Mayor and his wife, Eulalia [Eulalie, actually], were just right and the grecian urn dance was a winner. Each small group did their parts so well i.e., barbershop quartet, the train scene. Even the town statue was a pleasant surprise. All in all it was a wonderful way to spend a summer evening. I appreciate everyone's efforts in making this show such a winner. I can't figure out why Eric Snider needs to review the entire plot in his reviews and always has to make snide remarks about small things. He is much more of a criticizer than a critic in my book. [The difference being that criticizers make negative comments, whereas critics, in her book, just tell her that a show is really good and that she should go see it.]

Of all the angry mail I've inspired, this is probably the letter that agrees with me the most. Notice the things the mentioned as specifically being good: Matt and Rachel's great voices, the Mayor's wife, Grecian urn scene, train scene. Those are all things that I also mentioned specifically as being good.

So where does she disagree with me? Not sure. She's upset that I make "snide remarks about small things," but doesn't mention which minor details I allegedly criticized. The complaints I had were with the sound system (which, had I not known what the outcome was, would have prevented me from understanding why things turned out the way they did at the end, because I couldn't hear Marian), and with the inadequate performances of the two main characters. I hardly think either of those are "small things"!

She also follows the current trend of angry-letter writers in accusing me of wasting too much time discussing the plot. (No one has ever complained about that when they agreed with the review; it's only when they're upset already and are looking for something to add to their list of complaints.)

I have stated before that my reason for discussing the plot is so that viewers have an idea what the show is about. If it's about a war-torn romance, for example, there are probably a lot of people who would have no interest in it, regardless of how well it's performed. One could argue that with certain shows, EVERYONE knows the plot already. But I think those are really few and far between. Even "classic," long-lived shows may not have been seen by every one of our readers before. (I was quite old and well into my theater reviewing career before I ever saw "Oklahoma!" for example, and that certainly wasn't because I didn't go out much; it was just because no one happened to perform it amidst the 250 or so plays I saw those first few years.)

The complaint is particularly absurd in this case, though, because I spent a grand total of four sentences -- less than two paragraphs -- discussing the plot.

It is also an ironic complaint, because for many years, practically every theater critic in Utah did nothing BUT give a plot summary and a list of the cast and some generic statement like "It's really good," or whatever.

Finally, while I don't like to use this as an argument, look at the other theater reviews (or movie reviews, for that matter) in any paper. I don't discuss the details of the plots any more than they do. But, again, my discussion of the plot isn't what really makes people angry; it's the fact that I sometimes express negative opinions, which clearly I have no business doing.