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America is too big and diverse and good and bad and right and wrong to be represented by a single defining story, although if it could, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man would rank high in the running. The country had changed in the half-century between when Wilson set his musical and when he wrote it, providing a built-in nostalgia that has endured the half-century since. Yet as demonstrated by the Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production, change itself can be a constant: the push of the outside world on a complacent society and the excited tumult it brings still feels defiantly American and abundantly contemporary. Readers should note the performance I attended was the final preview, so the version I saw has likely adapted further, but the production’s prevailing theme of resisting and subsequently transforming in unlikely and welcome ways shone clearly through.

The story of a seasoned con and the spell he casts on little 1912 River City, Iowa, is handled with love by director Jon Huffman and an exuberant cast of more than thirty adults and children. Here, the emphasis is on a buttoned-up community on the precipice of discovery and change, for which traveling salesman and supposed band director Harold Hill (Zachary Barnes) is merely the catalyst — he bilks the town’s parents into enrolling their children in a boy’s band, whose expensive instruments and instruction books and uniforms are billed as a kind of insurance policy against youthful indiscretion. Under the encouragement and tutelage of the “professor,” nearly every member of the population bursts out of his shell and embraces some vibrant form of self-expression that was previously frowned upon by the prim, puritanical town. From a story standpoint, these developments are cast as merely a distraction to keep Harold from being found out, but Huffman’s staging finds traction in these moments; the approach lends a creaky pace to the overarching story of a long con, but pays off in positively sterling discoveries that forgive the weaker fare.

As Harold, Barnes relies on an innate charm that lends genuineness to his dishonesty, even as the performer subtly demonstrates the character spinning the lie to his advantage. Part of his modus operandi is to chastely seduce the local piano teacher, the only person who could reveal him as a musical fraud, and River City’s Marian Paroo (Stephanie Souza) presents a formidable challenge, doubling as the town librarian (read: Uptight Spinster Alert!) and smarty-pants at large. Souza’s turn as Marian casts an independent woman from the sad-old-maid mold, her interest lying not in Harold directly but in his startling influence on her self-conscious younger brother, played with practiced unease by Linus Babcock. The conflict comes to a head with the entrance of a vengeful fellow salesman (Keith Allan Kalinowski), whose brutishly comic grandstanding brings necessary distaste to a character technically in the right, both legally and ethically. A dozen or more small stories intersect to round out the portrait of an isolated, repressed city coming into its own, each of which is given ample attention and care that rewards a watchful viewer.

The action takes place in the positively quaint town square, whose stage-filling, two-story facades are further supplemented with a handful of other idyllic and innovative locales by set designer Leo Babcock. Lighting designer Daniel Fowler contributes a series of sunny July days and comfortably muggy twilights. The setting is amply fleshed out with lovely period costumes and properties by Sharlon Larkey Urick and Jennifer Colby, respectively; overall, it’s the closest a viewer can get to Greenfield Village with air conditioning. Music direction by Brian E. Buckner is at its best in its play with vocal tone and affectation, resulting in some supporting voices far funnier than the lyrics they’re singing; however, this is not to discount the musically sound ballads and company numbers, nor the giddy precision of the improbably impromptu barbershop quartet. Resonant brass and drums from the five-member orchestra just offstage are admittedly too aggressive for the Encore space; however, general amplification by sound designer Chuck Colby helps to quell the battle between voice and accompaniment. Nearly every number is florid with Barb Cullen’s choreography, from the restrained expression of a library scene to the unadulterated joy of teenagers allowed to cut loose. That the playing space never feels too crowded and only rarely too stagnant is a commendable accomplishment of the entire production team.

It’s The Music Man, two and a half hours of some of the best-loved songs in the genre. It’s how summer lets people not be themselves for a while. It’s America, back when it was unassailable; it’s America when bending the rules was the surest path to success. It’s a time capsule, yet the excitement of new personal and societal frontiers will forever feel timely. With its long view of River City and its many residents, this production is a celebration of progress and growth, which here rings out like the ultimate patriotic refrain.


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