"MUSIC MAN" CREATES A LONGING FOR INNOCENCE AND MARCHING BANDS
photo by Tim Fuller
In River City, Harold Hill (Bill English), left, shares his vision with townsperson  Ewart Dunlop (Lawrence E. Street).

If you are inclined to miss the sweet innocence that once filled those good old days of yesteryear, you need to spend some time with Arizona Theatre Company's beaming presentation, “The Music Man.”

Filled with eager enthusiasm and optimistic smiles, a heart-warming good time is guaranteed by ATC's own David Ivers directing this production of the Meredith Wilson classic.

Not only only is this cast always in a good mood, but the elaborate, ever-changing scenic design by Scott Pask is so clever it occasionaly upstages the actors.

Stretching some two stories into the overhead rigging, tall backdrops depict the proud buildings and countryside of River City, Iowa, in the early 1900s, both as a pastoral picture postcard and downstage as myriad scenes on picturesque front porches, all around the town square and – certainly – inside the train car full of traveling salesmen approaching the station and singing about how, to be succesful in Iowa, you have to know the territory.

This evergreen show debuted on Broadway in 1957. Color television networks were still a few years off. The rest of the world looked at the United States as that gleaming city on the hill.

Pask with his marvelous moving set has created such a larger-than-life atmosphere that, coupled with astoundingly authentic-looking period costumes by Margaret Neville, it is very easy to instantly buy in.

Once you make that 100 years plus leap from today's chaos to the quaint River City folk convinced they can be just as talented as anybody else in this vast country, anything is possible.

Enter Henry Hill (Bill English), a toothy guy in a plaid vest, tailor made for these empty plains of insecure dreamers who have no problem believing their awkward children can blossom into inspiring musicians in a marching band, with instruments and uniforms to match.

Hill, who doesn't know a lick of music, figures he can charm the citizenry to pay big bucks for all the trappings of uniforms, instruments, music and music lessons, to combat that insidious threat to River City's rambunctious youth by a recntly opened pool hall.

We sophisticates sitting in the audience, silenced cell phones in our pockets, become willing partipants in this wonderful joke.

Standing up for River City's decent people, and determined to defend her own virginity, is lovely Marian the librarian (Manna Nichols), blessed with a soaring soprano voice, as well. She is also the town's music teacher and instantly spots Henry Hill as a phony.

When it comes to staging a winning production of “Music Man,” not only do you need to know the territory, you need to have a magnetic Marian and a slippery Harold Hill.

To satisfy persnickety people and other perfectionists, Nichols needed to project more energy. Marian is, after all, the city's gatekeeper of ethics and wisdom. She should be polite but dynamic.

English has all the sunny optimism he will ever need for that role, though he lacks a dark side that would give his character more depth. If he never seems like a true threat, we are left to just wait around for the happy ending,

The barbershop quartet of grumpy local councilmen sounds smooth and mellow. Even better, they feel completely believable proving music does have the power to bring us all together.

Danny Scheie got extra applause as the goofy Mayor Shinn, happy to be leaping way over the top exaggerating misprounounced words, phrases and everything else in his path.

Meredith Wilson's songlist includes “Rock Island (Ya Gotta Know the Territory),” “Ya Got Trouble (Right Here in River City),” the iconic “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Shipoopi,” “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little,” “Marian the Librarian” and that timeless finisher, “Til There Was You.”

In recent years ATC brought us a powerful “Fiddler on the Roof” and an awsome “Man of La Mancha.” This season, the company's celebration of classic Broadway is just for fun. Which, considering all the anger filling the news every day, makes this show an excellent choice.

"The Music Man” continues through Dec. 30 (no shows Dec. 23-26) with performances at various times Tuesdays through Sundays in the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $46-$86. For details and reservations, 622-2823, or arizonatheatre.org









IMAGINATIVE WHIMSY IS THE MAIN INGREDIENT OF WOLFE BOWART'S "CLOUD SOUP"
photo by Tim Fuller (with thanks to Kate Breakey)

If you are older than 12, this is your chance to feel like a kid again. If you're younger, it's a chance to experience magic uplugged. Unenhanced by special digital effects of any kind.

We are talking “Cloud Soup,” a solo piece of fantasy performed at the Scoundrel & Scamp Theater by Wolfe Bowart, an artist in the medium of physical theater. You could also call it “silent theater.” There is recorded music, often with a carnival or klezmer flare.

In Bowart's performances there are lots of sight gags, humor without words. Comedy that stretches the imagination beyond pantomime and pratfalls, taking punch lines from a time hundreds of years ago when most people spoke a local language, not a national, official languge.

Finding work as a standup comedian once you went outside the king's court was difficult back then. So traveling entertainers had to find other ways to attract attention that didn't require speaking. Bowart has mastered many of these ways, pulling audiences in with his effortless manner.

"Cloud Soup” doesn't have a story to tell. It is built on the premise that if you didn't like the last bit, you may like the next one. He makes having a short attention span seem like a good thing.

For example, one brief skit creating the illusion of a mouse poking its head out of a match box leads Bowart to a trick with three bowler hats that transition into him juggling plates...and so it goes.

Having so many facets to enjoy makes this show a perfect way for introducing children to the concept of watching adults perform on stage. That is – seeing real, three-dimensional people you can reach out to touch. Much different from touching a picture on a screen in your hand.

Instead of having other actors on stage, there are lots of props and lots of creativity, such as turning a floor mop into a cheerful puppy. Or watching Bowart take a handful of feather dusters and turn himself into a big bird. Not the Big Bird from Sesame Street, more like a high strutting, short-winged ostrich.

Or, awhile later, throwing a blanket over himself and, after flopping around underneath the cover, becoming a long-necked turkey that emerges slowly from within. At first it isn't clear what this creature might be, but by the end it definitely is a turkey.

Other times, with a completely different attitude and bag of tricks, he became one of those hapless silent movie figures for whom life is a continuous series of discoveries.

Cloud Soup” concludes this season of the Scamp Family Theater. This production will continue in the new year with 7:30 p.m. performances Jan. 10-11, again at 2 p.m. Jan. 12-13, at the Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre in the Historic Y, 738 N. Fifth Ave.

Tickets are $28 general admission, $20 if you are under 30, $15 if you are a teacher or student, $12 if you are 10 or under. For details, scoundrelandscamp.org