It was one of those near-perfect summer evenings, warm, but not hot, with a slight breeze and a happy, magical feeling something great was going to happen.
And it did when the lights went up in Pleasanton's Firehouse Arts Center to reveal "The Music Man's" River City, Iowa, about the closest thing you can get to an American Brigadoon. River City was one of the last places where the hard-fought battle to hold onto the innocence of the 19th century was being waged.
As cautioned in the first tune of the show ("Rock Island"), it was, among other things, "the Model T Ford made the trouble, made people want to go ... want to get up and go ..." to discover a world that didn't stop at the city limits sign.
That is effectively demonstrated from the start of the Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre production of the classic Meredith Wilson musical, which plays through May 18 in the Firehouse Arts Center. The set, by Pat Brandon, who also did the lights, looms like the whole world over the tiny stage. It dwarfs River City and its residents, including Mayor George Shinn (John Hayden Williams), whose many hilarious speeches make the English language feel like a long trip on a winding road in total darkness.
David Judson, one of the co-founders of Pacific Coast Repertory, plays Professor Harold Hill, who stirs things up in River City when he comes to town promising to start a kids' band. Judson gives the role a puckish sensibility, which makes the audience root for him from the start, despite the fact he's a swindler.
That might also explain why Marian Paroo, the librarian (Amy Franklin Leonards) falls for the music man almost from the beginning. This slight shift -- in other versions, she at first resists his charms -- gives the play slightly higher stakes, since Hill is fighting to save his own skin while trying to remain a white knight in Marian's eyes.
These and other subtle changes in interpretation add an additional sparkle to Pat Parr's direction of the show, which must be languid yet fast-paced to work. And this production certainly does work. The crowd scenes, which are plentiful, are well-staged, with everyone on stage having a purpose for being there -- essential for a show that has a large number of youngsters in its cast.
Leonards' performance as Marian is terrific. She makes a very convincing piano teacher and librarian, seeming to have a great rapport with both her piano students and most of the library patrons, except those who are convinced the young woman had a "past" (if you know what I mean) with the old miser Madison, the man who built many of River City's public buildings and parks. Their reasoning is, "He left River City the library building, but he left all the books to her."
Leader of the gossipy Pickalittle Ladies group is the mayor's wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Ali Lane), who creates a delightfully annoying character, and she and Williams team wonderfully to assert themselves as one of River City's top crazed couples.
Hill's sidekick, Marcellus Washburn (Benjamin Pither), is a charming character and a fantastic dancer who leads the city's youth in the Shipoopi, a wild dance that leaves passions running high. Among the young hoofers is Tommy Djilas (William Hoshida, also an amazing and athletic dancer), who is the boyfriend of Zaneeta Shinn (Melissa Heinrich), the daughter of the extremely protective mayor, who promises all sorts of strangely worded harm if the boy lays a hand on her.
Joy Sherratt worked hard to create effective choreography for the show, and musical director Brett Strader and his small orchestra delivered the wonderful score and foundation for all the winning tunes -- "Seventy-Six Trombones," "The Wells Fargo Wagon," "Till There Was You," "Gary, Indiana," "My White Knight" -- in an auditorium-filling fashion.
Contact Pat Craig at email@example.com.
By Meredith Willson, presented by Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre
Through: May 18
Where: Firehouse Arts
Center, 4444 Railroad
Running time: 2 hours,
Tickets: $17-$38, 925-931-4848, www.pcrtproductions.org, www.firehousearts.org
Online: Find Pat Craig's review of Role Players Ensemble's "Ruddigore" at www.mercurynews.com/theater.