K-State’s musicals are always solid productions. The Speech and Music Department units which have recently reformed as the School of Music, Theater and Dance have many talented students, their faculty members are bright and hard-working, and McCain Auditorium has been an attractive venue for the popular shows.
But last week’s “Music Man” was extraordinary. And it was extraordinary by design. As Director Jennifer Vellenga told the Thursday evening audience, this production was intended to introduce the new School and to showcase the extent of its capabilities.
So they chose Meredith Willson’s beloved 1957 musical. Not only did this give the performers and their leaders a chance to send a sort of small town aesthetic valentine to Manhattan and the state. It also gave them a show that is the theatrical equivalent of a fat pitch, a pitch which Vellenga and company promptly knocked out of the park.
The “Music Man” was well acted. It was well sung. Paul Hunt’s pit band of twenty-nine and the auxiliary brass borrowed for the second act from the K-State Marching Band all sounded great. The technical concerns were well managed.
Of course, all of this is as it usually is in a K-State musical. Only a little moreso. Dana Pinkston’s costumes are always exemplary. But in this case the mix of faux Gilded Age and early Twentieth Century outfits, worked in related colors, not only looked great and moved well, but also suggested the relative ages of the characters.
David Ollington’s choreography is always imaginative. Here, particularly when he was designing movements for the teen couples, the dancing was new and yet suitable all at once. And Kathy Voecks, who usually designs big, inventive settings, seemed to have kicked it into another gear here. Using roll-on modules and drop-in headers, all the same off-white and all ornamented with period-related tracery, she set up a lighter, more fantastic River City than we are used to seeing. A better River City.
I’ve emphasized the contributions of the faculty. Perhaps that’s partly because the show began with several recognizable professors—Pittman and Ollington, for example—on stage and performing as traveling salesmen. At the end of this famous rhythm sequence, Joey Boos, playing Harold Hill, slipped from the train and into the challenging town.
There he met a gang of interesting characters played very well by talented K-State students and local kids. DJ Davis was credentials-demanding Mayor Shinn and Nashon Ruffin his dancing wife. The barbershop quartet of city councilmen was there, as well as high flying Alex Zolnerowich as Tommy the troublemaker and Bethany Parker as Zaneeta. No Zaneeta has ever surpassed Ms. Parker’s ability to squeak out the character’s tag line: “Ye Gods!”
The Paroos were audience favorites, especially little Winthrop (played with apparent zest by Connor Aggson). Staci Horton managed her accent well and I loved the little jig she danced when hearing that her daughter was about to meet Hill at the footbridge.
That daughter was Marian, Madame Librarian. Elise Poehling made her the focal point of the show. Poehling danced and acted well. She sang very well indeed. And if Boos sometimes seemed to be enjoying his confidence game too often—did he ever really think there was going to be a band?—her conversion from skeptic to devotee seemed right on.
The first act was astonishing. The second act slowed a little but was still laudable. And so the School of Music, Theater, and Dance got off a terrific, memorable first musical production, thanks to extra dollops of enthusiasm from the faculty and staff. Good launch. Terrific show.