Want to know what small-town America looks and feels like in the thick of summertime, circa 1940? The Glimmerglass Festival’s purest musical theater offering, The Music Man, is festive, frolicsome Americana, brimming with spectacular sets, clever staging, and a sensational ensemble showcasing Olympic-sized talent.

Megan Ort (Zaneeta Shinn) and Allan K. Washington (Tommy Djilas) in The Glimmerglass Festival produc © Karli Cadel / The Glimmerglass Festival
Megan Ort (Zaneeta Shinn) and Allan K. Washington (Tommy Djilas) in The Glimmerglass Festival produc
© Karli Cadel / The Glimmerglass Festival

Though composer Meredith Willson’s music has a timelessness to it, his book has grown as corny as River City, Iowa, where the show is set. Unabashed by its provincialism, director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge embraced the American theater potboiler’s old-fashioned elements whole hog. Like a fourth of July parade, the show was wholesome spectacle all the way through to the rousing curtain call. At Glimmerglass, they do musicals the old-fashioned way—unamplified. Since they have a smaller house than many American opera houses and the acoustics to support the unconventional choice of no microphones, the production makes for happy theatergoers who can’t wait to clap in time to the music during bows.

The story revolves around a slick traveling salesman going by the name of Harold Hill, who jumps off the dining car in River City to make a mountain of moolah selling band instruments and uniforms to small-town suckers. Oh, and along the way, he falls for a smart spinster librarian with a cute little brother and a gimlet-eyed ma.

The late great Robert Preston portrayed the role of the fast-talking, wheeling-and-dealing Harold Hill with quintessential panache and swagger, almost blinding theatergoers to the wonderful bits and shtick all around him. Unfortunately, for any other actor besides Preston playing Hill, comparisons are inevitable.

Hometown-talent-made-good Dwayne Croft rose to the challenge of playing an iconic role in musical theater. Croft has a beautiful, classically trained baritone that he tamped down for this role, so he didn’t sound like Don Giovanni plays River City. He’s also a fine comedian with loads of stage presence, which one has to have to pull off some of the outfits he was decked out in. His wasn’t a spellbinding performance, but it was strong and sturdy. And I’m kind of glad he wasn’t more Preston-esque because so many other worthy talents around him could be fully appreciated in this version.

The opening scene on the train is a tour de force. The hilarious a cappella rhythmic patter and signature movements of all the salesmen riding the rails—one bounces, one shakes his rear end, one can’t keep his balance—set the stage for the entire show. It symbolizes the ingenuity of American musical theater through inspired staging rather than glittery technology.

Four red-brimmed boaters off to the talented barbershop quartet, AKA the River City school board: Eric Bowden, Adam Bielamowicz, John David Boehr, Derrell Acon—all Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists, too. It’s a very funny bit when Hill distracts the school board from scrutinizing his credentials by cajoling the men into four-part harmony. And what crowd pleasers they were! I couldn’t wait for them to return to stage and make more vocal magic.

The mayor’s wife, played by Ernestine Jackson, and her gossipy friends were fine female comedic counterparts to the barbershoppers, dazzling not with notes but with—ahem—body parts.

All of the dancing was sheer confection. Song-and-dance man Josh Walden’s “Shipoopi,” in league with the Glimmerglass dancing octet, brought the house down.

As the cute little brother of Marian the Librarian, Winthrop Paroo, child actor Henry Wager was freckled perfection. Veteran actress Cindy Gold as Mrs. Paroo earned a shiny accolade of her own in the comic timing department. Speaking of Paroos, what about Marian Paroo, played by coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral? While Futral’s acting was spot on, and she looked like the ideal Marian for a 1940s redux of the role, vocally Futral didn’t cut it for me. Her voice was too heavy, almost sodden, for light musical theater, not the right tone or timbre whatsoever. She would have made a fine Queen of the Night. Unfortunately, Mozart didn’t write this show, and I kept thinking that there must be a thousand other sopranos who had more sweetness and lightness to voices as clear as bells and could have turned in more than a serviceable performance in the leading role. Note to casting director: pay more attention to the quality of the soprano voice needed for classic musical theater. Not the same as classic opera. Not in the least.

But overall, it was entertaining summertime fare that almost turned musical theater on its head. In classic opera, the quality of the entire show is sometimes and often unfairly filtered through the leading tenor and whether he hits his top Cs. In this show, the leads are secondary! The supporting roles and the Festival Chorus supported by fabulous musicians under the capable baton of John DeMain made this Music Man sing. That’s sing, and it rhymes with zing, and when it comes to musical theater, well, zing is everything!