Saturday, August 10, 2013

REVIEW: Journey's "The Music Man" Upbeat Fun and Nicely Done

Journey Theater Arts Group presents their annual all-chapter community theater production. This year it's, TAH DUH! (come on, you already know this): "The Music Man."

The Story:

An affectionate tribute to Smalltown, U.S.A. of a bygone era, Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" follows fast-talking traveling salesman named Gregory who goes by the name of Prof. Harold Hill as he cons the people of River City, Iowa into buying instruments and uniforms for a boys' band he vows to organize, this despite the fact he doesn't know a trombone from a treble clef. His plans to skip town with the cash are foiled when he falls for Marian the librarian, whose grace and love turn him into an honest man.

Based on a story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey, this critically acclaimed, award-winning Broadway classic is an all-American institution, thanks to its quirky characters, charmingly predictable dramatic situations, and one-of-a-kind, nostalgic score of rousing marches, barbershop quartets and sentimental ballads, which have become popular standards. Funny, warm, romantic and touching,"The Music Man" is family entertainment at its best.

But really the show is about two people set in their ways, who are quite judgmental of the other who find understanding, change and love.

Holly Counts (left) plays Marian Paroo and Chris Bartell (right) plays Prof.
Harold Hill in Journey's production of "The Music Man." Photo provided.

The Cast:

Chris Bartell, of Portland, plays Prof. Harold Hill. Holly Counts, a resident of Hillsboro, plays Marian Paroo. Both were well cast.

Bartell's characterization was snappy and slick--he was quick on his feet, fluid in motion, and easy to believe. His vocals--though some of the Hill tunes (like "Trouble") call for nothing more than rap--were good on nearly every song. While he delivered a rough Marian his voice was of 'the finest virtuoso' for 76 Trombones and his duets with Counts.

Counts has one of those stunning, lovely voices you can't get enough of. Her singing and dancing were tight and graceful, and while she didn't quite sell all of her emotions as an actress, I enjoyed her performance.

The company, cast and crew consists of members from all the local chapters of Journey Theater Arts Group (Beaverton, Portland, Vancouver and East Vancouver) so you get the best of their best.

Neil Southwood (as Marcellus Washburn) was a nearly ideal 'comic sidekick' for Bartell. I loved his Bronx accent. And speaking of accents, Cheri Hogan's (Mrs. Paroo) Irish brogue was delightful. Even though she is too young for the role, she carried herself well and had excellent comic skills and timing. Dave Robinson as the mayor was also quite humorous.

All the company performed well, but there were four other standouts. I really enjoyed the performance skills of the two youngest leads. Aida Valentine (Amaryllis) delivered an outstanding performance as an actress. Her facial expressions and body movement, as well as her line delivery, were top notch. But the real show-stealer was Josiah Bartell as Winthrop. So cute and, yeth, adorable--every bit as much as little Ronny Howard (from the film)--nailed his solos in Gary Indiana and Wells Fargo Wagon. Also worth mentioning is the crowd-pleasing delivery by the barbershop quartet.

Finally, two chorus members stood out for their exceptional performances; Lucy Belle Thompson gave an all-out, always on performance. Erin Fowler did the same, even more so. Fowler's every movement was enthusiastic and orchestrated precision, her expressive and animated face every bit Disney-esque, and, though she had no solos, seemed to belt out her chorus numbers with power. I would like to see these two in lead roles.

The Production:

As with last year's "Footloose" this was well done. Yes, there were a couple small opening night glitches which I have faith will be ironed out, but all-in-all the show was a delight. I really loved the presentation because it is first of all an exuberant, uplifting and well-written musical (and you know I love a good musical). Secondly, the company did a quality job in the presentation in every way.

Costume, hair and makeup, by Anne Dunlop were all nicely done. Choreography, by Samantha Newhall, was generally quite good and, at times, truly inspired. I think that what could have been done and what was practical were two different things and that compromises, due to a large cast crowded onto a small stage (considering the company size), had to be made.

The lighting, by Daniel R. Shafar, was above average and included a rich musical-theater color palette. There were some acting areas at the edges, and flats at the heights, that could have been lit better, but over-all the stage was evenly illuminated and the transitions smooth and interesting.

The set, by Mark Martin, simple and stylized, worked well. It was on and off quickly and moved under the cover of music or transitional dialogue (some of the rolling pieces could be heard). It had a certain Broadway charm and, at times, grandeur to it. I especially liked the Crayola-colored River City set.

The musical direction and orchestra conduction, by James Pick, was awesome! The band sounded great and did not, generally, overpower the company or miked leads. There was very little mike trouble (though some) and lead part vocals were sometimes not strong enough in ensemble pieces (Pick-a-Little and Wells Fargo). This is a difficult show for vocalists (tight harmonies, rapid fire lyrics, tricky rhythms, etc.) and much work went into getting it right.

Of course, all of this was corralled and organized, overseen and otherwise inspired by the director Kristi L. Foster. Since it came off so well and I walked out of the theater so pleased and feeling good, she must have done the job right. I would recommend you go see this production and you, too, will walk out feeling good.

Other Information:

The JTAG Community Theater Production runs two weekends at The University of Portland’s Mago Hunt Theater, sponsored and supported locally by Wells Fargo and Moda Health. Performances are August 9-18, 2013 at the Mago Hunt Theater at the University of Portland (directions on the JTAG website). Tickets are on sale now at or by calling 360-750-8550. Pre-sale adult tickets are $18. Student and military tickets are $15 (with ID). Youth and senior tickets are $12. The 2:00 p.m. Saturday, August 10th showing is a “family day” performance with all tickets just $12. Tickets at the door will be $3 more.

By Gregory E. Zschomler
Photo provided

For another perspective see the Dennis Sparks review by clicking HERE.

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