Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson
Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre
Date: Thursday 31st July 2008
A number of people had been telling me how much they enjoyed this musical, and that can sometimes lead to disappointment, but fortunately this time it didn’t. I loved the music and the singing, especially Scarlett Strallen as Marian, the librarian. She has a lovely voice, and hit her notes perfectly, without the off-key sliding that is so prevalent nowadays. I also enjoyed the hen chorus, where the women of the town are done up with little mini-bustles at the back that look like tails, and walk around like chickens while gossiping away. The story was good too, with some decent characters and a believable setting.
The set was very good. Wooden facades curved round the back of the stage, with lots of doors and windows, and two bigger doors plumb centre. Telegraph poles stood forward of this on our right, but blended into the walls as they went further back. Apart from this, and a small platform over to our left which served as the porch for Marian’s mother’s house, the stage was bare, and picket fences, benches and the rest were brought on as needed. When the Pony Express wagon arrived bringing the uniforms, I had hoped they’d bring it through the big doors with some sort of horse attached, but sadly they just had the townsfolk a-pushing and a-pulling. Shame.
One other slight disappointment was that having seen Six Characters earlier in the month, we’d had a preview of the finale for this production in the video clip they showed, so there was no surprise for us when everyone turned up at the end wearing their uniforms; in fact I found I was waiting for it towards the end. Also, I didn’t hear all the lyrics clearly, though I did still enjoy the singing, and for once I was surprised to find that I knew a lot of the songs, including Till There Was You, one of my favourites (I’m a mushy sentimentalist at heart). All the performances were excellent, although Steve felt Brian Conley wasn’t quite right for the lead part. Certainly his singing could have been better, but as a character who’s meant to be non-musical perhaps his standard of singing was too good!
I’ll finish with the opening of the performance, as that was my favourite bit. A group of people, mostly travelling salesmen, are sitting on a train, and as it chugs along, they debate the issues of the day until one of them asks if anyone knows the whereabouts of a certain Harold Hill, a disreputable salesman who’s giving his more honest(-ish) colleagues problems by cheating a town’s population out of their money and scarpering. This guy wants to track him down and put him out of business. At the very end, as the train’s about to pull out of River City station, Harold reveals himself, and announces his intention to stay in town and do what he does best. It certainly took me by surprise, and got a good reception from the audience.
But the thing I enjoyed most about this opening was that the train was simply the suitcases placed on the revolve, which turned round slowly while the passengers and guard jiggled about to show the movement. This, combined with the singing, which went from person to person so fast I could hardly keep up, was entrancing, and just the sort of thing I love in the theatre. I’m looking forward to next year’s offering already.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me