Theater Review: “The Music Man” at the Olney Theater Center

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Adelina Mitchell (Marian Paroo) and James Caverly (Harold Hill) ‘The Music Man’ at the Olney Theater Center. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

“The Music Man” is considered by many to be the epitome of Americana in musical theatre. With lyrics, music and book by Meredith Willson and story by Willson and Franklin Lacey, the current iteration of Olney is co-directed by Michael Baron and Sandra Mae Frank.

This production had many bumps on the road to its opening. The idea was first conceived by James Caverly, who plays the lead role of Harold Hill, and Jason Loewith, artistic director of the Olney Theater Center. Caverly, who is deaf himself, had seen a musical on Broadway that used hearing and deaf actors and suggested “The Music Man” in 2017. It took some time to work out the logistics, and then there had the pandemic. Recently Covid again impacted the original opening date. The show was finally able to begin airing on June 29, 2022. Even then, several cast members were still wearing masks.

…a resounding success. Don’t miss this most amazing production. It’s a summer staple and perfect for all ages.

At first, I didn’t know how I would enjoy a musical where many actors didn’t speak but used American Sign Language. Then I remembered seeing a Broadway production of the Theater of the Deaf in the 1970s. It only took a few minutes to sit down and enjoy every moment of that production. It was like watching a great foreign language movie. After a while, you don’t care about having to read the subtitles and you are absorbed in the story.

There are times when ASL is used even when one of the actors is not hard of hearing. Because the words are projected high above the heads of the performers, I had to make the choice to follow the dialogue or watch the performances. I wish they could have had the words closer to the performers so they could do both. However, this may be how those who depend on sign language interpreters may feel when attending a “normal” performance. They can watch the performer, usually relegated below the stage or out of the way, or watch the performers.

The placement of the projected words didn’t affect the overall enjoyment of the show at all due to the wonderful performances. Caverly is magnificent as Harold Hill. Hill is a con man who tricks the small town of River City, Iowa into buying instruments and uniforms for a group of children in order to protect the children from the corrupting influences of billiards. Caverly helps us visualize Hill’s ingenious ways of wooing the townspeople with the help of his old pal and former con man, Marcellus (Vaidya). All of Willson’s wonderful songs are still there and handled in a very inventive way – the two performers are meticulously intertwined not just as characters, but vocally because Vaidya is Caverly’s singing voice. He has a wonderful voice and with Caverly’s signature it makes the music more meaningful. They were exceptionally integrated into the “You Got Trouble” number.

Hill’s scheme also involves winning over local librarian and piano teacher, Marian Paroo, played by Adelina Mitchell. Of course, the two fall in love but their relationship holds some surprises. Mitchell also has a wonderfully trained voice. Although she is not hard of hearing, she also signs either with vocalizations or simply by signing her lines. (She sings her songs.) Mitchell and Caverly have great chemistry, and when they sing “Till There Was You” — one in words and one in ASL — it was a great theatrical moment.

The supporting cast all give performances that help electrify the production. Nicki Runge plays Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s mother, and Christopher Tester plays her brother, Winthrop. Both are hard of hearing actors and bring authenticity to the characters.

Andrew Morrill has just the right amount of smothering as Mayor George Shinn and Amelia Hensley is perfectly self-centered and righteous as his wife, Eulalie Mackenknie Shinn. The latter is hysterical as she leads her women’s dance group.

Other star cast members include Florrie Bogel beginning with “Rock Island” as bandleader (later as Ethel Toffelmier, Marcellus’ daughter). She and Jay Frisby as Charlie Cowell (later Jacey Squires), do what can only be described as Iowa rap. Both have remarkable voices and often sing for hearing-impaired actors.

There are three amazing young performers: Anjel Piñero as Zuneeta Shinn, Matthew August as Tommy Djilas and Sophia Early as Amaryllis. The first two are very young lovers who meet behind Zuneeta’s parents’ backs. August and Shinn also voice many songs for their fellow actors. Early’s rendition of the complicated tongue twister, “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” is perfection and his vocalization for Winthrop in “Gary, Indiana” is delightful. The rest of the dazzling ensemble includes Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant, Gregor Lobes, Dylan Toms and Heather Beck.

The fact that a production as ambitious as this works and turns out so well is due to the two directors Baron and Frank. Like the Caverly and the Vaidya, their direction blends together to create many memorable moments. Karma Camp’s choreography not only helps the show go on, but also shows off the talents of the performers.

Music Director Christopher Youstra does an amazing job. There is an added challenge as the vocals and signature have to be in perfect sync, making sure the timing is perfect. Everyone is doing a wonderful job. The orchestra on stage enriches the musical numbers and manages to sound like a full group of seventy-six musicians. Musicians include Youstra on piano; Pam Wilt on keyboard; Lee Lachman on piccolo, flute, clarinet and soprano sax; Roger Garza on clarinet and bassoon; Joseph Herrera on trumpet; Joe Jackson on trombone; Andrea Vercoe on violin; Matt Trimboli on guitar/banjo; Max Murray on bass/tuba; and Mark Carson on percussion.

Ethan Sinnott’s stage designs are very clever and Rosemary Pardee’s costume designs are period and reflect each character. Matt Rowe’s sound design helps make it seem like every cast member is singing. Jesse W. Belsky’s lighting design illuminates the actors, which is especially important when signing. Michelle Banks directed the ASL and Sean Preston was the projection designer.

“The Music Man” is a resounding success. Don’t miss this most amazing production. It’s a summer staple and perfect for all ages.

Duration: 2h40 with an intermission.

“The Music Man” runs through July 22, 2022 at the Olney Theater Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney MD 20832. For tickets and information, call the box office at 301.924.3400, open Wednesday through Saturday: 12 : 00 – 6:00 pm or go to this link. For more information on Covid safety protocols, click here.

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