The Music Man

May 22 2024 | By | Reply More

★★★★☆       Massive

Festival Theatre: Tue 21 – Sat 25 May 2024
Review by Hugh Simpson

Huge production numbers and constant energy dominate Southern Light’s The Music Man at the Festival Theatre. Undeniably frothy and not a little silly, it has a scale and magnetism that draw the audience in.

Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical (from a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey) tells the story of ‘Professor’ Harold Hill, a conman whose speciality is selling expensive instruments and uniforms to start a boys’ marching band, despite having no musical knowledge. His arrival in River City, Iowa, leads to personal entanglements that threaten to derail his criminal activities.

John Bruce and cast members of Southern Light’s The Music Man. Pic: Andrew Morris

This is one of those musicals that is clearly more cherished in America than it is over here. A couple of the numbers have stood the test of time – one, Till There Was You, with the help of the Beatles. The show’s main hold on posterity is that it beat the first production of West Side Story in the Tony awards.

No doubt this was because Story was too much of a new departure to click immediately with awards juries. Certainly, it is difficult now to imagine the two shows originating in the same year; they seem to come from completely different eras in both style and attitudes.

There are some preoccupations here with gender roles that are positively Victorian (and which even the odd updated lyric cannot overcome). The central relationship, moreover, makes no sense whatsoever even by the standards of musical theatre plots.

Seventy Six Trombones

If you can get past all of that, there is a great deal going on. There are several big chorus numbers, notably the best known tune Seventy Six Trombones. There are also a huge number of featured roles, with no less than 28 listed in the programme. The attractions to non-professional companies are obvious.

Featured Dancers in Southern Light’s The Music Man. Pic: Andrew Morris

Southern Light certainly attack it all with the maximum of vitality and diligence. Director Fraser Grant uses every inch of the Festival Theatre stage, and – together with choreographer Louise Williamson – utilises the huge cast with rhythm, energy and considerable thought.

John Bruce is almost ridiculously likeable as Professor Hill, discharging difficult patter songs like Trouble with pizzazz and charm. He is asked to play to the audience (constantly drawing attention to how ridiculous it all is) in a way that does not always cross the footlights in such a huge venue, but it is a very fine characterisation nonetheless.

melodic, clear and enviably dramatic

Rebekah Lansley is outstanding as the Professor’s unlikely love interest, librarian and music teacher Marian Paroo. Her singing is melodic, clear and enviably dramatic, and (like Bruce) she has a good understanding of the comic facets of the role.

The supporting cast are simply too numerous to all be mentioned, but there is a real cohesion to the ensemble, with a remarkable uniformity in the standard of performance and even of accents.

John Bruce and cast members of Southen Light’s The Music Man. Pic: Andrew Morris

Peter Tomassi has real comic energy as the professor’s sidekick Marcellus, leading the utterly daft Shipoopi with élan. Paul Strilich as the malaprop-beset Mayor, and Dorothy Johnstone as his wife, have presences both commanding and humorous.

There is a touching realism to the relationship between the Mayor’s daughter Zaneeta (Susanna Anderson) and tearaway Tommy (Eric Whitelaw), while Samantha Lea’s depiction of Marian’s widowed mother has considerable pathos.

Callum Stott, Laurence Aitken, Gustav Selstam and David Bartholomew impress as feuding businessmen who become a barbershop quartet; Ellen Leonard, Jill Howie, Louise Freeborn and Helen Smith are convincing as their female counterparts.

hucksterish bluster

There is an oleaginous quality to Stephen Boyd’s travelling salesman that makes it clear that the unvarnished truth is never going to win out over old-fashioned hucksterish bluster. In the end, nobody cares about facts, what matters is what Midwesterners feel to be true. Maybe, sadly, the politics of the show haven’t dated so much after all?

John Bruce and the cast of Southen Light’s The Music Man. Pic: Andrew Morris

The massive cast (there are nearly 100 names in the programme) is composed of younger performers as well as adults, and a couple of them have pivotal roles. Eliza Cormack’s Amaryllis is beautifully pitched and confidently portrayed, while Oliver Thomson plays Marian’s shy brother Winthrop with rare awareness and considerable talent. Winthrop’s character is pivotal to the story, and Thomson more than does it justice.

While Grant and Williamson’s use of their resources is usually well judged, there is the occasional moment where the wrong choices are made. Sometimes there is just too much going on; the featured dancers (who are largely excellent) have to compete with too many other people on stage. Elsewhere, there are moments in an important early scene where the placing of a piano at the side of the stage means that two out of the three cast members in the scene are largely invisible to a good third of the auditorium.


Similarly, the projections (designed by Neil McDowell Smith) are overused and tend to the fussy. They are undoubtedly stunning and technically superb, but don’t need to be constantly changing and drawing the eye away from the action, or commenting on that action in a way that can be too literal.

As befits a show about marching bands, the orchestra is brass and reed-heavy, and marshalled tremendously by MD Maddy Baron. The sound is tuneful, punchy and well-balanced – which could also be said of the whole show. While it is long (nearly three hours) it never seems like it, and is constantly enjoyable.

Running time 2 hours 45 minutes including one interval
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson St, EH8 9FT
Tuesday 21 – Saturday 25 May 2024
Evenings at 7.30 pm; Matinee Saturday 2.30 pm
Details and tickets: Book here.

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Rebekah Lansley in Southen Light’s The Music Man. Pic: Andrew Morris.


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