Andrew Meacham gushes: Musically, the creative team behind the St. Petersburg Opera’s season-ending musical, The Music Man, were clearly going all out. Meredith Willson’s paean to small-town Americana outdid West Side Story in the 1958 Tony Awards with a hit parade of tunes — including Goodnight My Someone, Seventy-Six Trombones and Till There Was You — a huge cast and a booming, brassy orchestra.
The St. Pete Opera team got all of that plus some outstanding individual performances and a spirited, skillful dance ensemble in an exuberant show at the Palladium. More even than love, this show is about the power of hope, in the idea that even faith in a lie is better than no faith at all. This production set additional musical standards: Singers needed to have serious operatic chops — and all did. Artistic director Mark Sforzini showcased the top priority by beginning with the overture as a separate mini-performance, with the band led by Florida Orchestra principal trumpet Rob Smith.
The show needed key players who could emphasize the effect of a swindle, and got that indispensably from Daren Kelly in a non-singing role as the fiery Mayor Shinn, who sees his leadership usurped by a con man. Others also stepped forward. Soprano Molly Mustonen demonstrated a consistent vision as librarian Marian Paroo and the kind of singing you won’t hear on Broadway, sometimes to Broadway’s detriment.
It needed a colorful, exuberant and spot-on chorus and got that, with choreography by Deanna Dys and a lot of good singers in a cast of 43. Among them, supporting players Olivia Sargent and David Bevis chipped in strongly as the mayor’s daughter and her rebellious boyfriend as did Becca McCoy as Eulalie, the hilariously clueless mayor’s wife. And young Jackson Orchard held his own with poise as Winthrop, Marian’s younger brother.
It needed a sterling barbershop quartet to master the exquisite swells in Lida Rose and Sincere, and got one in Matthew Krob, Adam Cannedy, George Slotin and Branch Fields on the bass line, who appeared earlier this season as Mephistopheles in Faust. (Lance Lubin, the associate director of the Pinellas chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, coached the opera veterans to sing sans vibrato.)
The Music Man especially needs a galvanizing leading man as Harold Hill, the con man, someone who can lift townspeople and the audience. This it did not get.
Peter Kendall Clark is a fine singer — always the priority in opera, I get that — with a voice more capable than the music even demands. But the drama requires more than he gave. If he was hell-bent on not replicating Robert Preston in the role, fine; come up with some other way to credibly motivate the masses. Instead, he seemed to recite rather than inhabit his lines, fumbling a few on opening night and talking fast but without vivacity in his body or persona. A salesman of motor mounts for locomotives would have more energy.
On a side note, the creative team elected to present this musical as a museum piece, not attempting to render any of it more contemporary.That is their artistic choice to make, but a cultural evolution about women and minorities since the 1950s makes some elements trickier than others.
A presentation by a women’s society group about Native Americans, for example, satirizes those stereotypes and is basically laugh material. The way the female characters themselves are rendered, gossipy and with little to do (as in the number Pickalittle), not so much. It’s hard to see a new production simply reproducing the original without some nod to women as thinking people and not getting flak for it.
Be that as it may, this is a lavish and enjoyable show that didn’t spare the cost or the effort.