Tuesday, June 18

The Music Man – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Watching Fraser Grant’s punchy Edinburgh revival of this lesser known gem one can begin to see why Meredith Willson’s musical easily won out over West Side Story at Broadway’s Tony awards in 1958. Underneath it’s folksy exterior this entertaining and inventive show with its lively toe-tapping score provides plenty of opportunities for the large cast of SLO to shine.

The story is set in 1914 in the sleepy Iowa town of River City. Con man Harold Hill sets his sights on persuading the locals to set up a boys’ band, complete with expensive instruments and uniforms, pocket the money, then skip town before his tone-deaf ignorance is revealed. What the fast-talking spellbinder forgets to factor in is getting his foot stuck on haughty local librarian, Marian Paroo.

The book, music and lyrics, all by Willson, rely on exposing two American myths: the charm of the con man and the redemptive power of love.

This musical starts super strong, from the rousing first bars of the overture under the assured baton of Musical Director, Maddy Baron, we launch straight in to the comically arranged catchy first number Rock Island, an A Cappella piece set to the propulsive rhythm of a train, and shortly after the superbly performed barnstorming tongue-twister Ya Got Trouble, with John Bruce on top form as the loveable rogue. A collection of patter songs, barbershop quartets, the one everyone knows, Seventy-Six Trombones, and the delightful Till There Was You, immortalised some years later by The Beatles, all feature. A highlight Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little parodies the local gossips running around like pecking chickens. It is surely one of the best scores from the Golden Age of Broadway, and it beautifully expresses the ethos of small town America in the early 20th Century.

Photo: Andrew Morris

Rebekah Lansley does a fine job as the Librarian love interest Marian, who proves that she is always more than that. She is especially fun when first encountering Harold Hill or later when she is trying to persuade another salesman, Charlie Cowell from revealing Hill’s scheme to the town. Acting aside, Lansley’s natural soprano is dreamy, no more so than in her jaw-dropping rendition of My White Knight.

Special mention should also go to youngster, Oliver Thompson as Marion’s socially awkward younger brother Winthrop, who’s unlikely friendship with Hill paves the way towards the couples growing relationship. Thompson’s ability to connect to the audience and sing so confidently on such a big stage draws hearty applause and shows huge promise for the future.

As American as a big slice of Apple pie on the Fourth of July, this musical puts it all out there with bells and whistles and bunting aplenty. Frothy Summer frocks, knickerbockers, hats and waistcoats, perfectly styled, bring the town to life amid the nicely lit scenery. Projected backdrops and animated images all add to the shows visual depth and indicate a high level of thought and sophistication throughout the performance.

This is as much a dance show as it is a musical one and the choreography by Louise Williamson is generally excellent if sometimes a bit overly fussy. There are also some orchestral dance sections which, whilst very beautiful, stretch the audiences’ attention span.

After the high octane entertainment of the first half hour, it is perhaps unsurprising that the rest of the show never quite reaches the same intensity. Even more worrying however, the whole production does at times feel particularly dated and, dare I say it, a little flat. The half empty auditorium speaks volumes. Perhaps the staging of this little-known musical from the American 1950s set in 1914 is a stretch too far for the audiences of the 2020s? Whereas West Side Story, from the same era, has adapted and evolved over the years, for all its charm, this doesn’t feel like it has moved on at all.

Reviewer: Greg Holstead

Reviewed: 21st May 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.