The Chichester Festival Theatre has a winning way with Broadway musicals. This season, it's busy reclaiming shows that are seldom staged because they're so strongly associated with their original stars. In the Minerva Studio, Angus Jackson and Samantha Spiro have established that you don't need Barbra Streisand to score a hit with Funny Girl. And now, in Rachel Kavanaugh's ridiculously enjoyable revival, she and Brian Conley prove that Robert Preston is not indispensable to the success of The Music Man, Meredith Willson's funny, folksy celebration of small-town life in pre-First World War Iowa.
Conley plays "Professor" Harold Hill, a con man who poses as a boys' band leader and sells instruments and uniforms to gullible burghers before skipping town. The joke is that, though Harold is a fraud who can't blow a note, he's actually an instinctive (if inadvertent) "music man" in the dazzling, metrical chutzpah of his huckster's sales-talk. "Trouble – that starts with a T/that rhymes with P/that stands for Pool," he intones when evangelising about the dangers of the community's new pool-table. And it's a delectable irony that this charlatan does bring about moral change in River City, liberating the townsfolk from their joyless mindset through his scam.
The Music Man is sometimes patronised because there are only two songs – "Seventy-Six Trombones" and "Till There Was You" – that have found independent fame. But from the opening chorus, which presents the tattle of a carriage full of businessmen as an unaccompanied train-imitation, the score's brilliance lies in the way the numbers transform everyday rhythms. Stephen Mear's brilliant choreography amplifies this sense that music is waiting to erupt in the most mundane places. For example, the simple head movements of the readers in the library become the nucleus of a dance extravaganza encompassing ballet, soft-shoe shuffle and Charleston.
Audiences would queue for the privilege of buying a used trombone from Brian Conley, who brings mischievous warmth and punchy timing to the central role. Scarlett Strallen is in shimmering voice as Marian, the prim librarian who learns not to judge a book by its cover. With its bickering councillors, who, because of the Harold effect, are converted into a hilariously inseparable barbershop quartet (all boaters, blazers and permanent grins), and with its finale, where the cast become a scarlet-uniformed band, the production perfectly captures the affectionate drollery of Willson's exercise in nostalgic escapism. You emerge feeling that you've just had a fortnight's holiday in the sun.
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