Meredith Willson must have loved Mason City, Iowa. He was born there. He grew up there. And, years later, he wrote an outsized thank you to the place, nothing less than an entire Broadway musical in which he relabels it River City.
That River City has been constructed on the stage of Indiana University’s Musical Arts Center for a new production of Willson’s best-known creation, the theatrical bouquet widely known and loved as “The Music Man.”
Last presented here in 2001, Indiana University Opera Theater has given its current production a quality both photographic and dreamy. Through clever use of scenery that slides on and off and lowers and rises to reveal a bouncing-along train car, a town square, a cozy wood-framed house with porch out front and a parlor with piano inside, a school gymnasium, a street, a park, a library, a bridge where two lives change dramatically, a bridge where the leading man shifts from con to a fellow hopelessly smitten and the leading lady from lonely yet seemingly satisfied spinster to a woman also smitten and ready for love. The scenery, designed by Steven Kemp, who previously created Opera Theater sets for “Madama Butterfly,” “Oklahoma!” and “Dead Man Walking,” looks genuinely 1912 (when the story is meant to happen). So do Linda Pisano’s handsome-to-look-at costumes.
Sticking with the physical aspects of the show, one must credit Patrick Mero for his excellent lighting and Aaron Beck for audio engineering much improved from a number of previous shows that required the use of microphones.
Stage director Vincent Liotta — who for 20 years prior to retirement in 2015 so successfully staged productions as resident director, professor and chair of opera studies in the IU Jacobs School of Music — returned to share his vast knowledge and his devotion for the musical stage with the two fine casts gathered for this go at “The Music Man.” His sharp-eyed search for validity and the right details has remained intact. The stage was well used by all who peopled the story, thereby contributing nostalgia and time-kissed memory to the affair. Liotta obviously believes in Willson’s musical portrait of back-then middle America, and the belief was helpfully catching among the many working on stage and behind it.
So, too, the chosen conductor, Constantine Kitsopoulos, came with the right attitude. In previous visits, he had proven his loyalty to musical theater as music director of seven very different local productions, from the first, Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella,” to the more recent “The Last Savage” of Gian Carlo Menotti. Kitsopoulos gave the University Orchestra, the well-trained Walter Huff Opera Chorus, Brent Gault’s delightful-to-watch Children’s Chorus and the numerous soloists the necessary guidance, as offered from a highly experienced practitioner of the opera and its offshoots.
The casts had worked themselves into units; each individual became a member of a team. Just so you know, the opening night cast, which also sang Sunday afternoon, will sing next Saturday’s performance. Last Saturday’s will do the honors this coming Friday.
The opening Friday’s cast was led by baritone Benjamin Seiwert as Harold Hill, the intruder who came to cheat but stays for love, and soprano Cadie Jordan as Marian the librarian, the spinster ready for a change. Both have lovely lyrical voices, just right for Willson’s words and music, and their stage presence helped to propel the plot. Tenor Tislam Swift gave personality to Marcellus, Harold Hill’s longtime friend and former sidekick in swindling, now striving to live honestly and urging Harold to do likewise. Mezzo Amber McKoy naturally portrays Mrs. Paroo, an anxious-about-her-daughter-Marian’s mother. Glen Hall, in the speaking role of Mayor (in both casts), and mezzo Hannah Benson as his wife, Eulalie, provide some of the evening’s comedy in roles that call for touches of caricature.
The alternate cast seemed imbued with a similar sense for personality-building, for which director Liotta deserves a goodly portion of the credit. Bass Luke Robinson and soprano Virginia Mims took good care of the lead roles. Equally effective stewardship was contributed by tenor Chad Singer as Marcellus, soprano Lindsey Allen as Mrs. Paroo and mezzo Kate Sorrells as the mayor’s wife.
Others on the long list of soloists added to the production’s success. Special mention must go to a couple of young boys, Ian Shaw and Callum Miles, who — as Marian’s little brother Winthrop — soloed with gusto and clear voice one of the show’s hit songs, “Gary, Indiana.” They brought cheers from the audience, deservedly.
Praise also came to a wonderful barbershop ensemble, the Jordan Crossing Quartet, serving as a sort of on-looking Greek chorus that observes the scene, always while singing mellifluously: lead Stephen Chambers, tenor Thomas Tiggleman, baritone Joe Grimme and bass Daniel Lentz.
One noted, finally, that the casts and chorus were required not only to sing but to dance, which they did very smoothly, thanks to choreographer Sarah Hairston. The production as a whole is proof that nostalgia can be an awfully good thing. What one saw and heard was charming.