THE MUSIC MAN Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park London
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Indelibly identified with the title role in The Music Man, which he played on Broadway and on celluloid, Robert Preston was in fact a straight actor who had never appeared in a musical. Like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, the part of "Professor" Harold Hill, the con-artist selling instruments in Meridith Willson's show, requires not a singer as such but a first-rate actor who can talk-sing with a musician'stiming and rhythm. Ian Talbot's amiable revival of the piece in the Regents Park Open Air Theatre entrusts this character to Brian Cox. In him, they certainly have the first-rate actor (his Titus and Lear are two of the greatest performances seen in recent years). What about the rest?

From the moment his Harold launches into "Trouble", the song in which he pretends to evangelise against the evils of playing pool and the problems it could bring to the upstanding parents of River City, Iowa, it's clear that Cox has what it takes to sell this likeable disreputable salesman. Punching out the words with a duplicitous revivalist's fervour ("Trouble - that starts with T/ that rhymes with P/ that stands for Pool"), he displays a shifty huckster's chutzpah in spades. A stocky, capering figure in loudly clashing checks and two-tone brogues, he's light on the feet he never firmly plants on the floor, as though constantly expecting he'll have to switch direction and make a speedy getaway.

With enough snappy wit to dilute the sugar content of its underlying message, The Music Man shows how its hero, who makes his living selling instruments and then disappearing with the money before the promised lessons can be delivered, manages to bring colour and life to a joyless, stiff- necked town and romance to the heart of Marion, a librarian and trainee old maid. In achieving the latter, Cox is up against the formidable problem of Liz Robertson, a performer, who, it has always struck me, makes Moira Anderson look as though she possesses a personality of Bette Midler proportions. On opening night, her serviceable but characterless soprano carried the songs a mite insecurely, too. Barbara Cook was bliss in the role on the original cast album, while Shirley Jones was an anodyne substitute in the movie. The decline continues apace here.

Disproving the Violet Elizabeth Bott principle that all children with lisps deserve to be introduced to Herod, Adam Goldsmith is a delight as Winthrop, the young, vocally challenged character, and, though you could never be fooled for a moment that you were watching a genuinely American cast, there's a certain pleasure in watching English performers struggling gamely with the idiom.

Paul Farnsworth's river city design, with its clapboard facades that revolve to disclose dinky interiors and its toy-town engines and animals, had one or two teething problems (the train ran over a row of corn; the Wells Fargo Wagon seemed most reluctant to enter), but the general effect is endearing. Asked which bit she'd liked best, my seven-year-old daughter answered "the Mayoress's huge, wiggling bottom". That's this production for you - memorable in parts.

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