Music_Man_SRJC_Nov2016

Alanna Weatherby as Marian and Annelise Ethington as Winthrop. Photo by Tom Chown

By ROBERT DIGITALE

Santa Rosa Junior College’s new production of “Music Man” is surprisingly good.

I don’t mean it’s surprising that the college’s Theatre Arts Department could rise to the occasion. The department, which with this production is looking more than ever like a theater company, has enjoyed a string of successes over the last five autumns, including stunning versions of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Misérables.” Indeed, audiences have come to expect that the college’s fall musical will be a crowd pleaser for both young and old, which explains why Friday night’s opening performance was packed.

No, the surprising thing is how much the cast made of this old standard.

I know that many believe it’s a good old standard, a certifiable gem in American musical theater. “Music Man” certainly has more than its share of catchy Broadway tunes (just try getting them out of your head afterwards). And it does offer the treat of watching a cocksure con man working all the angles. But let’s face it. This show has been around for nearly 60 years, and we all know how it’s going to end.

So how did Director John Shillington and his creative team pull off such a good production? They stacked the deck. They didn’t just bring in students who could sing and act. They cast a gaggle of actors who’ve played top roles in past college productions (and some who’ve gone on to community theater).

I counted at least 10 such cast members, including the two child actors, Annelise Ethington as Winthrop and Freyja Kremer as Amaryllis. The two each had rotating roles in last year’s “Mary Poppins.” (Semi-spoiler alert: be prepared for a big dose of adorable.)

The casting provided a depth of talent reaching all the way down to the barbershop quartet. Its members included Noah Sternhill (Bert in “Mary Poppins”) and Brett Mollard (the baker in last February’s “Into the Woods” at SSU). When joined by fellow cast members Ryan Whitlock and Cooper Bennett, this foursome locked into their harmonies and won over the audience.

Set in 1912 in River City, Iowa, “Music Man” features a traveling salesman/huckster and a librarian on track for spinsterhood. As such, the show can’t succeed without a male actor who can really bamboozle and a female cast member whose voice can shine no matter how high the song rises. Friday’s opening delivered both with Trevor Hoffman and Alanna Weatherby (the latter shares the role of librarian Marian Paroo with Sidney McNulty).

Audiences will remember Weatherby as a delight in the title role of “Mary Poppins.” Here she once more dazzles listeners with her singing. Many of her songs aren’t the most memorable (especially compared to “Ya Got Trouble” or “Seventy-Six Trombones”). But she does get to deliver the simple and lovely “Till There Was You,” and it’s a show highlight (especially for those of a certain age who first heard the song as recorded by the “Beatles.”)

As for the other leading role, the college certainly has found its Professor Harold Hill in Hoffman. Again, here is no newcomer. Years back Hoffman gave a strong performance as the insufferable Henry Higgins in the college’s production of “My Fair Lady.” I don’t know all he’s done since, but this summer he won a Stage One Theater Arts Award for co-directing Sonoma Arts Live’s production of “Assassins.”

Actors and con men typically share a certain daring and an abundance of self-confidence in order to spin their magic, so perhaps the role of the phony band director would be easy for most thespians. But Hoffman seemed spot on in scene after scene, giving just the right amount of chicanery, bravado and seeming improvisation as his character tries to stay one step ahead of the mayor and other townsfolk. Plus, he proved himself a capable singer and a fluid, acrobatic dancer. On opening night I had audience members to my right and left praising his performance.

The rest of the cast adds nicely to the spectacle, from the unusual opening number “Rock Island,” (sort of an early Americana rap song performed by the male cast members), to a pleasingly on-the-mark version of “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” by the female members.

The orchestra, under the direction of Janis Dunson Wilson, moves the show nicely along. And once more scenic designer Peter Crompton has delivered an eye-catching set, with a multi-level “stone” square and lattice-like building outlines, the latter allowing evocative “skies” of red and blue to seep through from the backdrop.

The production features a total of 13 matinee and evening performances through Dec. 11. For tickets, click here.

Next up in the 2016-17 season will be 18th Century playwright Carlo Goldoni’s “Servant of Two Masters,” March 10-19; and “In the Heights,” the first musical by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, April 21- May 7.