This is a forgotten musical; scarcely mentioned when great shows are being discussed; yet, as the programme points out, it was the third-longest running show on Broadway in the 50s and beat West Side Story to best musical at the Tonys of 1958.
It's hard to imagine why this Meredith Willson-penned show is so under-rated. There are some great songs (who doesn't know “76 Trombones”?), there are some great jokes and the story of the slick, travelling salesman who creates a picture of children learning an instrument and forming a band only to find that his vision becomes true (well, almost) is a heart-warming one.
What's more, the storyline - where children are rescued from a life of boredom and juvenile delinquency - has its modern real-life parallel in the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. And while that music project, with its focus on group learning, is a long way from Harold Hill's “think system”, audiences can see the power that music has to change young minds.
There is another aspect of the play that Chichester audiences will love: it’s set in a small Iowan town at the early part of the last century and a nostalgic glow permeates the action. It’s certainly an atmosphere not too dissimilar to Chichester itself – it’s a place where you can imagine Balzac being banned from the local library (in fact, the programme notes helpfully explain who Chaucer was – the management must feel he’s too bawdy for the city).
Any qualms that I might have had on whether Chichester is the right place for this were banished right from the opening scene. Rachel Kavanaugh's production gets off to a great start with the staging of the first number - a patter song from a group of salesmen - and it scarcely lets up from there.
As Harold Hill, Brian Conley gives us an easy-going charm. He's not a great singer – but then neither was Robert Preston in the original - but he has a pleasant manner without really suggesting that here's a duplicitous, smooth-talking salesman. He looks like the sort of character for whom robbing the church social club of its biscuits would be the limit of his criminality.
Scarlet Strallen as Marian Paroo, the town's librarian and music teacher, sings beautifully - although without really giving the impression of being the hard-hearted blue-stocking whom Hill must conquer. Rolf Saxon gives a great turn as the pompous mayor and there's some wonderful barbershop singing from the quartet of Kenneth Avery-Clark, Steve Fortune, Matthew Gould and Giles Taylor. A big hand too for Stephen Mear’s choreography - not too flashy, it’s perfectly appropriate for the show.
There's very little that's wrong with this production, though one complaint is that the singing lacks clarity at times - one should be able to hear every word. But what does come across clearly is a feeling of sheer joy. I defy anyone not to leave it without a smile on their face.
- Maxwell Cooter