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Did ya hear the one about the traveling salesman? Of course you did. Maybe in an off-color locker room joke. Or in one of the countless American stories that immortalize that intrepid nomad riding on a shoeshine and a smile. In the Skylight Theatre’s revival of The Music Man, which opened this weekend, the smile […]


Did ya hear the one about the traveling salesman?

Of course you did. Maybe in an off-color locker room joke. Or in one of the countless American stories that immortalize that intrepid nomad riding on a shoeshine and a smile.

In the Skylight Theatre’s revival of The Music Man, which opened this weekend, the smile is as wide as an Iowa cornfield, and the shine on the shoes is outmatched by the eye-popping aura cast by a rakishly tilted boater and the gleaming brass of “horns of every shape and kind.” Mounting one of the largest shows in Skylight history, Bill Theisen and his crew have given Milwaukee a holiday joyride that is hard to beat.

There’s an odd double nostalgia at play watching this Eisenhower-era musical, which is in turn set in the pre-war sunshine (around 1910) of middle-America. Meredith Wilson wrote the show as an homage to his native Iowa and its hardy stock of plains characters. Through the double lens, it might seem we’re eavesdropping on life in another solar system where town matrons don Roman togas and meet in the gymnasium for Delsarte posing and calisthenics. Or when insults like “round-heel fiz gig” prompt rejoinders like “and so’s you’re old man.” One could imagine how a young Don Draper would have chuckled when a train passenger has his cigarette plucked from his lips as he disembarks, learning that smoking isn’t allowed in River City.

But like the New York gangster world of Guys and Dolls, the Skylight’s River City is a charming world unto itself, each generation represented but its own flock of characters the barbershop quartet (Paul Helm, Tommy Hahn, Michael Black, Parker Cristan – always in tune), the high-energy teens on the brink of young love (lead by the charismatic Ryan Tutton and Sydney Kirkegaard), and a talented group of kids, lead by Winthrop (Cole Winston), the shy and lisping boy who is touched by the magic of Professor Harold Hill’s marching band scam.

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And the show looks far from homespun, with gingham and plaids as far as they eye can see (costumes by Gregory Slawko), and candy colored facades that, on the Realism Scale, register somewhere between Andrew Wyeth and gingerbread houses (sets by Peter Dean Beck). And conductor Richard Carsey has an 11-piece orchestra sounding like Sousa in his heyday.

The huge cast is lead by Norman Moses as Hill and Niffer Clarke as Marion, a leading couple that are a bit old for their characters, but do a terrific job of selling the cold-shoulder-to-open-arms love story that’s at the heart of the play. Joel Kopischke makes a welcome return to the stage as Marcellus, stealing the show with the big musical number, “Shipoopi” (ya have to be there). And Mark Bucher and Debra Babich make wonderful comic turns as River City’s mayor and First Lady.

But the show really thrives on its show-stopping musical numbers, which are knockouts in the hands of director Theisen and choreographer Pam Kriger. At times it seems like the Cabot Theatre stage can barely hold the huge cast, but it never feels cramped or awkward, and Theisen and Kriger move the crowds around with a terrific energy and invention. In their hands to cite the show’s most sublimely fantastic number – a library has never looked like so much fun.

And – sorry, Hawkeyes neither has Iowa.

 

The Music Man photo by Mark Frohna
L-R: Paul Helm, Tommy Hahn, Michael T. Black, Parker J. Cristan

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