Critics are paid to have opinions, so I am going to lay a big fat one on you right now with the expectation that I'm starting an argument.
The best score in all of musical theater? "The Music Man."
This suggests no disrespect or lack of appreciation for the composing giants and geniuses who have filled millions of ears with unforgettable and sometimes moving tunes. It's simply that Meredith Willson's song list in "The Music Man" is irresistibly fun, melodic and hummable. The songs contain more hooks than a Wisconsin fisherman's tackle box.
You will hear this for yourself if you catch the Skylight Opera Theatre's production of "The Music Man" that opened last weekend. Be prepared to be charmed and sent into the cold night with a head full of recurring tunes.
Unless you have been culturally isolated since 1957, the year "The Music Man" burst onto Broadway, you know the story of River City, Iowa and the silver-tongued itinerant salesman who talked the local folks into buying band instruments and uniforms. This is surprisingly the first time the Skylight has staged the musical. Here are some observations about the production.
Norman Moses was born to play Professor Harold Hill. His vast body of work suggests that, and he does not disappoint here.
Moses has been the city's premier song and dance man for 30 years, and this was a role he had to play. He's smooth, engaging and real.
Debra Babich nearly steals the show playing the mayor's comically self-absorbed and ostentatious wife. Matronly to the max, she is a highlights reel of amusing tics, flourishes and gestures.
Mark Bucher, the founder and artistic director of the Boulevard Ensemble Theatre, is more a director than an actor, but his portrait of Babich's bellowing husband, the River City mayor, serves the show quite well. Blowhard politicians are a cliche, and his is cartoonish without going over the top.
We've known for a long time that Joel Kopischke can sell a Broadway show tune with polish and pizzazz. It was not as apparent that he could bounce around a stage like a human pinball to humorous effect. He plays Harold Hill's accomplice, Marcellus Washburn, and with hoofing partner Elaine Parsons-Herro, they contribute to the infectious merriment.
Pam Kriger's choreography continually tickles with its cleverness and occasional goofiness. The inclusion of two library-shelf ladders in the "Marian the Librarian" choreography is an example of the former.
Speaking of Marian, she is the lone disappointment in the production. Skylight favorite Niffer Clarke certainly sings the role well, but she never gets beyond the stuffy librarian persona. We don't see the glacier melting as she falls for super salesman Hill, and we don't perceive any chemistry between the two.
Clarke doesn't make a connection with the audience, either. We need to fall a little in love with her.
With 18 children and teenagers, this 37-person cast is the largest the Skylight has ever fielded. It is very pleasing.
The two leading kids, piano student Amaryllis and the lisping Winthrop, capture our hearts, as they must. Keely Alona Savitt is an adorable mini ingenue, and Cole A. Winston is an awfully cute, poker-faced little guy.
Bill Theisen's direction is savvy and fluid.
Beneath "The Music Man's" corny plot and shenanigans, Meredith Willson buried a message we would do well to remember in these angry times. Joy of life is an essential element to being human.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.